Finally, a moment of opportunity was opening up as I was being invited to take on a new leadership role in the organisation I was working in. There was not great clarity about it. The Executive Director did not want to make major changes to the leadership structure but was seeking to slide a new role into the existing one. I should have known. I should have seen what lay ahead.
Without clarity about how relationships in the leadership structure would work, without the work of thinking through and seeking to embed new ways of functioning, it failed.
I don’t think my colleagues were deliberate with bypassing the new structure. The new structure was not clear. I don’t think the Executive Director wanted it to fail, though maybe his motives were not as pure as I imagined them to be. He could say he tried to include more women in leadership but she left.
We had struggled as an organisation to get women into leadership. I was at that time, and continue to be, a voice for greater inclusion of women in leadership. This seemed like a way of creating some momentum for change. I bought into the narrative new things were happening and as I had been pushing for change it seemed I should accept the invitation.
I was set up to fail. I don’t know if it was a traditional glass cliff, but I certainly took on a new role that had no way of succeeding. There was an underlying antagonism among some colleagues that there was a hierarchy being formed in leadership. The changes had not been widely discussed in the leadership team. The Executive Director didn’t change his way of relating to any of the team, even though he had created a new structure, so I found male colleagues preferred to work with him because he ‘understood them and how they worked’. My line management responsibilities were compromised. When they disagreed with a discussion with me they simply went to the Executive Director who made no attempt to talk to me about what had been discussed.
I failed. I learned a lot, but it was a painful failing. We never did name the issues, I simply left quietly, naming some other reasons for moving on.
I failed my female colleagues because what I agreed and took on, with its subsequent failure, probably set back growth in women in leadership by some years. It clearly didn’t work. After I left the role was redefined. A male colleague took on a very different role under the same name and was given great freedom to run in a very different direction. The Executive Director backed away from a remodelled structures that created task distinctions in leadership and management. For the next several years there were few women on the leadership team.
What questions should I have ask that would have uncovered the weaknesses in what was being offered and uncovered how I was set up to fail? What does it mean to advocate for change and then face something that will lead to failure and not to change?
These invisible barriers challenge the narrative that there are no women for roles in leadership, that they always say no. They expose the blindness in organisations that hinders practices of equality. Glass cliffs and glass ceilings need to be shattered, but women will need to do it together.
Featured Image: With thanks Pixabay