Shattering the Glass Cliff. Is Twitter Next?

Dezenhall Resources / June 7, 2023
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That was until Musk announced Linda Yaccarino as Twitter’s new CEO.

The Glass Cliff.

As a woman in the crisis management business, I’m fascinated with the concept of the Glass Cliff. The Glass Cliff was coined by researchers at the University of Exeter that found that when companies are in trouble, they often promote or hire women into leadership positions, potentially setting them up to fail and leaving them to take the fall for whatever mess they inherited. There have been a number of high-profile, front page of the Wall Street Journal examples of this over the last decade or so – Erin Callan at Lehman Brothers, Sallie Krawcheck at Citi, Carly Fiorina at Hewlett Packard, and Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, to name a few.

A fork in the road. 

I believe there are two distinctly different lenses you can see the Glass Cliff through.

The first is frustrating and cynical. The Glass Cliff could be viewed as another way, a patriarchal society puts up barriers for others to succeed and keeps true equality out of reach. While this very well may be true and the intention of some at the top, it’s outdated and plays into the hands of those looking backward, not forward.

The second is optimistic and more accurate. The Glass Cliff could be another proof point that women are incredibly reliable and successful leaders and simply know how (or will figure out how) to get it done when the stakes are at their highest.

Yes, I chose to see it this way, not because I am a woman in business, but because, as a crisis manager, I know it to be true. I’ve lived it, seen it play out in cases I haven’t been a part of, and you have too.

Why should you care?

Having managed crises you never knew about, to those that were headline news, with executive teams of varying shapes and skill levels – there are a few universal characteristics that help organizations manage through high-stakes situations successfully.

In a crisis, it’s good to see RED. 

So, what are these critical characteristics? Resilience, emotional intelligence, and decisiveness, or RED.

Resilience is the capacity to withstand and recover quickly from difficulties and toughness. As Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Getting up, off the ropes, and landing a counter punch after you’ve been rattled is resilience.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions and understand the emotions of people around you. At no time is emotional intelligence in business more important than during times of turmoil and controversy.  Fifteen years ago, the mention of emotion in a business setting was met with extreme skepticism at best and outright mockery at worst. Today, there is a body of research that demonstrates the importance of EQ in the workplace. It’s important to note emotional intelligence means genuinely understanding how key constituencies actually think and respond to actions, messages, etc., not projecting how leaders may want them to think. Whether we want to admit it or not, we all come to the table with our own biases and being able to understand one’s own personal predispositions separates great leaders and crisis managers from mediocre ones.

Decisiveness is the ability to make decisions quickly and effectively. There is nothing worse than a decision by committee, anytime, but particularly when the stakes are high. Recognizing the buck stops with you, being willing to make tough decisions quickly, and managing what comes on the other side of that decision is critical.

Each of these is simple in theory. In practice, they can be harder to come by, especially under pressure. I can say unequivocally that every female CEO, GC, COO, and CCO I advise embodies RED qualities and works to actively develop these skills among their teams. While I don’t disclose my clients, let me share two cases where RED reigned.

I worked with an executive who was an organization’s long-term board member; we’ll call her Kate Smith. Kate took the helm on an interim basis as the multi-billion-dollar operation faced the most significant legal and reputational liability in its history. Kate’s resilience was put to the test constantly as, nearly every day, new, damning information came to light that could change the trajectory of the crisis for the organization. She gracefully pivoted repeatedly while being critically aware of the varying impacts on a diverse set of stakeholders. There were dozens of incredibly consequential decisions to be made every day. She was thoughtful and deliberate with every choice. RED was on full display in Kate’s unshakable leadership, and she ultimately guided the organization to continued success with minimal financial and reputational harm.

In early 2020, as murmurs of an extreme virus were making their way through public health circles, a new executive took the top job of a critical equipment manufacturing operation; we’ll call her Leslie Johnson. Leslie’s first challenge was a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic that turned her organization’s international supply chain on its head overnight. No longer able to source raw materials from global suppliers at a steady pace, Leslie drove the organization to rethink everything constantly, and resilience became a way of life. In shifting to round-the-clock manufacturing and strategic planning, Leslie prioritized communicating with her team and made regular check-ins standard operating procedures. Having a pulse on her people gave Leslie an early warning system to detect shifts in morale, burnout, and stress so they could be addressed in near real-time. If I could go back in time, I would count the number of consequential crossroads Leslie led her organization and team through over those two years. Her ability to be decisive took their operation to new heights under the most challenging of conditions while keeping an engaged and forward-focused workforce.

Don’t just take my word for it. There are several high-profile Glass Cliff shattering leaders that have faced very public controversy in recent years.

Mary Barra at General Motors. Claiming the reins in 2014, Barra stared down a monstrous crisis, where faulty ignition switches had given birth to a significant recall – over 2 million vehicles with a handful of fatalities. Staring down the barrel of enormous pressures and heavy criticism, Barra steered GM from wobbly instability to rock-solid growth. Her leadership is a synchronized symphony of thoughtful and bold decisions, crystal-clear transparency, and a relentless pursuit of people and culture. It’s been nearly a decade, and Barra is still plotting GM’s course into the future. She’s making industry-shaking moves, such as broadening their electric vehicle collection. She embodies a resilience that goes beyond simply keeping the ship afloat in choppy waters. Her story is a testament to her adaptability, a knack for bouncing back stronger, and drive to usher change in a rapidly shifting industry.

Whitney Wolfe Herd at Bumble. Wolfe Heard founded Bumble, Inc., an online dating platform, in 2014. After co-founding Tinder, Wolfe Herd left the company she started and sued the company over sexual harassment and discrimination claims. Undeterred, she channeled these experiences into Bumble, growing it into a leading dating app despite significant challenges, including allegations of racism and sexism against her business partner Andrey Andreev in 2019. Faced with a reputational crisis and expanding globally, she orchestrated a deal with Blackstone, which acquired a majority stake in Bumble’s parent company Magiclab, valuing it at $3 Billion. With her deep empathy and resilience, Wolfe Herd has navigated high-stakes decisions to foster a successful business and an empowering culture her team takes pride in.

These four leaders are just a handful of examples of shattering the Glass Cliff, I’m confident there are countless other past examples, and I look forward to many more.

So, does that mean only women are equipped to lead in times of turmoil? No. However, there is a business case for that, with recent reports showing that female CEOs tend to outperform their male counterparts by 8 to 12 percent. The reality is any leader continually demonstrating resilience, emotional intelligence, and decisiveness is significantly more likely to usher their company through high-stakes situations and get themselves back to business with less long-term disruption and reputational impact. And that is the exact objective of successful crisis management.

Back to Twitter. While I don’t know Linda Yaccarino personally, based on her various roles and experience in industry and cultural disruption along the way to Twitter – chair of advertising for NBC Universal, COO of Turner Entertainment Advertising – I’m willing to bet she possesses RED. And though I’m still not Twitter’s biggest fan, I’m looking forward to seeing how Yaccarino manages the past, current (Elon Musk and Ron DeSantis’ Twitter Live, and Twitter’s diminishing value come to mind), and future fires Twitter will inevitably have while continuing the trend of shattering the Glass Cliff.