From Glass Ceilings to Glass Cliffs: How A CEO Set Up For Failure Came Out On Top

5 Min Read

Keep breaking those barriers, ladies!

Brought on as interim leader during a time of crisis for the company she worked at, Toni Pergolin tapped into her toolbox of skills to develop key strategies needed to save the company, thus earning her well-deserved spot as CEO of Bancroft.

When we talk about women leadership and equality, we throw around the phrase "glass ceiling" as often as women experience it in their professional lives. The phrase represents the invisible barrier that prevents women and minorities from advancing past a certain point within their profession. However, the perceivable zenith of our careers beyond the ceiling reveals a much less talked about, but equally intimidating, barrier referred to as the "glass cliff." As the wording has probably already helped you envision, the glass cliff refers to the phenomenon of women being elevated to positions of power during a period in which the company is in jeopardy. Essentially, women are being placed at the top when there is a significantly greater risk for them to fall.

As President and CEO of Bancroft, now one of the largest human services providers in New Jersey and the Greater Philadelphia region, Toni Pergolin's glass cliff experience presented itself to her as the sinking ship that was Bancroft itself. Brought on as an "interim" leader during a time of crisis, Pergolin not only exceeded expectations when she pulled the organization from the brink of disaster but she also doubled their revenue. Having doubled the size of the company, while growing several other companies, throughout the course of her 15 years as CEO, the highly regarded strategic leader shared her journey of successfully navigating the glass cliff with SWAAY while offering advice to women who may find themselves in a similarly dangerous situation.

Before finding herself as the interim leader at Bancroft, Pergolin began her career as an internal auditor. When she arrived at Bancroft and discovered the situation at hand, her auditing experience allowed her to fully understand what the numbers were really saying, prompting her to delegate focus where it was most needed. She then immediately pushed payroll to the top of her list of major concerns. Because she knew turnarounds never happened in the finance department, she knew she had to take the reins in engaging all levels of the organization in order to ensure the future of the company and its employees.

Despite having a strong background in finance that would make her an exceptionally good fit for leadership, there were more deep-rooted issues afoot that she was able to easily recognize and prioritize.

"Bancroft had lost sight of basic principles as it evolved over time, eventually finding itself in a dire situation," stated Pergolin. "I reinstated those principles and insisted on adoption of the discipline required to set everything else aside and focus on the priorities, and accepted a personal responsibility to drive the team forward."

Pergolin proved to be the successful leader Bancroft needed in order to regain its stance and allowed employees to focus on the company's mission of helping people and families overcome challenges that autism, intellectual disabilities, and brain injuries present. However, her success raises the question as to what the company's previous leaders were failing to do that bringing a woman on board could possibly resolve. When asked why she believes women are often sought out to save sinking businesses, Pergolin stated that she believes women are natural problem solvers who not only have the ability to define problems, but are able to develop both long term and short term solutions.

Companies without female leadership lack the necessary range of perspectives and insight that can often times be ignored. Not only did Pergolin bring a fresh perspective to a plummeting company but she has since focused on surrounding herself with, and hiring, a diverse group of people who can help the company see through unique lenses.

While many of us find it easier to lean towards the perspective of glass cliffs as a company's attempt at scapegoating, Pergolin has only viewed her glass cliff experience as an opportunity, because she was the right woman for the job. She accredits the recognition she received that placed her at the top to her well-rounded "toolbox" of skills and resources. For this very reason, Pergolin believes that in order for women to successfully navigate the glass cliff, especially within nonprofit organizations, it is imperative that we establish our own toolbox of skills that can help us survive any scope of challenge. However, before women can focus on leading an organization in crisis, Pergolin expresses how essential it is that women first shift their perspectives about the obstacles before them.

"First believe in yourself. Trust your skills and don't be afraid to step up and step in. I believe you have to train yourself to stop looking at upward mobility as something to overcome, but rather something to conquer. Because you can," she stated.

Once we view these obstacles as mere rungs on our ladder to success rather than the Goliath to our David, we can focus on taking action towards meeting our goals. So, what are the key strategies to saving a sinking business? Pergolin shares a rather straightforward guide that women can enact immediately.

"Gather the facts quickly, watch your performance indicators, make a plan and then take quick action. As importantly, share your plan, lay out the vision, invite others to walk alongside you and communicate early and often."

After identifying the financial issues wreaking havoc on Bancroft, Pergolin reviewed cash flow and revenue projections. She outlined her strategy by holding on to cash as long as possible while preventing vendors from ceasing services, all to get the company's finances back on a more efficient track.

While there is no single track to success, understanding the best course of action to take when considering the problems plaguing a company will inevitably lead women leaders to success. For those who have yet to face a glass cliff, this CEO shares that while it is important for women to have the skills and know how needed to save their company, having a clear vision is as essential towards being a strong leader as their skillsets are towards bringing it to fruition. Pergolin shares that leaders must have a vision, make a case for it and lay out a plan to execute it. Strong leaders should remain committed to their vision and should be able to build a herd of believers that support it, all the while engaging people from throughout the organization as well as stakeholders and influencers who can also help make it happen.

In her new book, Too Important to Fail: Leadership Lessons for Nonprofits, Pergolin shares more on how to approach, plan and execute the turnaround of a nonprofit organization to help those who rely on them most.

Courtesy of Toni Pergolin

3 Min Read

Five Essential Lessons to Keep in Mind When You're Starting Your Own Business

"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.

Find A Need And Fill It

I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.

Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.

Have Working Capital And Credit

There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.

I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.

Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.

My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.

Know Your Product Thoroughly

I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?

My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.

My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!

More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.

Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth

I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.

I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.

Delegate From The Bottom Up

I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.

In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.