scorecardCompanies are scrambling to hire more Black talent — but they must tackle the 'glass cliff' that can set Black leaders up for failure
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Companies are scrambling to hire more Black talent — but they must tackle the 'glass cliff' that can set Black leaders up for failure

Scott Dust   

Companies are scrambling to hire more Black talent — but they must tackle the 'glass cliff' that can set Black leaders up for failure
Careers4 min read
  • Dr. Scott Dust is an assistant professor of management at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and has written extensively on the impact of cognitive bias in leadership.
  • Corporate America's rush to hire Black leaders amid the Black Lives Matter movement may seem progressive, but given the wider context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dust warns that it could have an averse effect.
  • With high unemployment, a plummeting economy, and pressure to act as a token of social progress, newly appointed Black leaders will face intense scrutiny and an uphill battle to success.
  • If a company truly wants to support Black leaders, Dust suggests they search for experts in different industries, focusing on a good track records and demonstrated leadership skills.

In the tragic wake of the George Floyd murder, the Black Lives Matter movement has put a spotlight on how organizational leaders address racial injustice. A slew of executives from the likes of Reddit, CrossFit, Bon Appétit, and The Poetry Foundation have stepped down for being anywhere between tone-deaf to flat-out racist. Stakeholders — and in some cases, the exiting leaders — are demanding that organizations replace them with Black executives.

Following an unprecedented 18-month mass exodus of CEOs stepping down for retirement, strategic change, or ethical infractions, this seems like a prime opportunity to promote Black employees to positions of power to chip away at racial inequality in leadership. But thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, if not viewed with the correct perspective, we'll fall into the same old traps and be worse off than we were before.

The unemployment rate is above double-digits, and the US government is pushing the same economic recovery buttons that were pushed in the 1940s, post-Depression. The years ahead will be rough. This is problematic because our perception of leader performance is strongly tied to organizational performance.

I fear that as the years go by, we'll begin evaluating our newly appointed Black leaders with blinders on. The situation reeks of three consistently surfacing challenges in the promotion of racial minority executives.

Black employees are more likely to get leadership opportunities when there's a higher chance of failure

The glass cliff theory suggests that Black employees, compared to white employees, are more likely to be given opportunities to lead when the likelihood of failure is high.

Regardless of the leader's capabilities and decisions, the organization inevitably struggles and the leader is blamed. This perpetuates a cycle of non-promotion for presumed lack of talent.

This phenomenon is likely to happen even more given today's context. To minimize this faulty assumption, leaders' evaluations should be based on their decisions and behaviors, not their ability to turn water into wine.

Promoting Black leaders should be intentional, not reactionary

The bold moves theory suggests that decisions on who should lead are influenced by anticipated shareholder reaction. In this scenario, promoting the Black candidate is more of an impression management strategy than a business strategy.

This approach can be problematic when the organization settles for an unqualified candidate. Yes, society demands a sense of urgency. But slowing down and finding a good fit — in terms of abilities and race — is worth the wait.

The problem is that organizations are obsessed with finding leaders that have industry experience, even though research suggests that experience has minimal impact on performance. Because the system has artificially limited the pool of Black candidates, this deference for experience makes the pool unnecessarily smaller.

Specific to high-level leaders, it's time to look for Black leaders more broadly. Strategic thinking and management acumen are not industry-bound. Further, in order to fill the pipeline at lower levels of the organization, it's time to get serious about implementing technology — artificial intelligence and machine learning, simulations, and the like — to help tease out cognitive biases.

Using Black leaders as 'tokens' is problematic

The corporate savior theory highlights that Black leaders tend to experience tokenism. As tokens, Black leaders struggle because they are highly visible and experience intense scrutiny.

Putting a magnifying glass over Black leaders is problematic. It instigates exponential pressure to perform, which can cause them to make decisions they wouldn't otherwise make.

Regardless of the organizational outcome, the backlash is negative. When Black leaders succeed it is a cause de célèbre, which incorrectly positions the success as an anomaly. When Black leaders fail, the most common reaction is to put back into place a more "traditional" (i.e., white) leader.

As the movement progresses and more Black leaders are promoted, we need to be cautious of how we interpret their performance. Resorting to the corporate savior mentality only perpetuates these simplistic assumptions.

Going forward

As of today, there are only four Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Promoting Black leaders would chip away at the incredibly lopsided race imbalance in leadership. It would also ensure that leadership is more aligned with demographic and societal trends.

Moving in this direction is long overdue, and to make it a truly lasting change, let us not forget the backdrop.

Newly appointed Black leaders are not only being asked to lead during a crisis, but act as a signal of newly formed organizational values of racial equality, all while being put under an intense microscope.

The willingness to step up during such circumstances in and of itself is an act of true leadership, regardless of organizational profitability.

To overcome said challenges will be tough, as it requires self-policing of cognitive biases, changing organizational and societal culture, and implementing governmental interventions. Whether you are an organizational stakeholder or simply a conscious citizen, you play a role in righting the ship.

Never forget that organizations are built to increase shareholder return. Organizations can't operate without committed employees, or compete without investments, or keep the lights on without customers. You are that employee, or that investor, or that customer. The future of racial equality in leadership is also in your hands, not just the Black leaders themselves.

Scott Dust, PhD, is the Dr. John F. Mee endowed assistant professor of management at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His research, teaching, and consulting focus on leadership and teams, and he has written widely on how cognitive bias affects leadership processes. Follow him on Twitter.