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

Help! Am I A Fraud?

The Armchair Psychologist has all the answers you need!

Help! I Might Get Fired!

Dear Armchair Psychologist,

What's the best way to be prepared for a layoff? Because of the crisis, I am worried that my company is going to let me go soon, what can I do to be prepared? Is now a good time to send resumes? Should I save money? Redesign my website? Be proactive at work? Make myself non-disposable?

- Restless & Jobless

Dear Restless & Jobless,

I'm sorry that you're feeling anxious about your employment status. There are many people like yourself in this pandemic who are navigating an uncertain future, many have already lost their jobs. In my experience as a former professional recruiter for almost a decade, I always told my candidates the importance of periodically being passively on the market. This way, you'd know your worth, and you'd be able to track the market rates that may have changed over time, and sometimes even your job title which might have evolved unbeknownst to you.

This is a great time to reach out to your network, update your online professional presence (LinkedIn etc.), and send resumes. Though I'm not a fan of sending a resume blindly into a large database. Rather, talk to friends or email acquaintances and have them directly introduce you to someone who knows someone at a list of companies and people you have already researched. It's called "working closest to the dollar."

Here's a useful article with some great COVID-times employment tips; it suggests to "post ideas, articles, and other content that will attract and engage your target audience—specifically recruiters." If you're able to, try to steer away from focusing too much on the possibility of getting fired, instead spend your energy being the best you can be at work, and also actively being on the job market. Schedule as many video calls as you can, there's nothing like good ol' face-to-face meetings to get yourself on someone's radar. If your worries get the best of you, I recommend you schedule time with a qualified therapist. When you're ready, lean into that video chat and werk!

- The Armchair Psychologist


Dear Armchair Psychologist,

I'm an independent consultant in NYC. I just filed for unemployment, but I feel a little guilty collecting because a) I'm not looking for a job (there are none anyway) and b) the company that will pay just happens to be the one that had me file a W2 last year; I've done other 1099 work since then.

- Guilt-Ridden

Dear Name,

I'm sorry that you're wracked with guilt. It's admirable that your conscience is making you re-evaluate whether you are entitled to "burden the system" so to speak as a state's unemployment funds can run low. Shame researchers, like Dr. Brené Brown, believe that the difference between shame and guilt is that shame is often rooted in the self/self-worth and is often destructive whereas guilt is based on one's behavior and compels us to do better. "I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it's holding something we've done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort."

Your guilt sounds like a healthy problem. Many people feel guilty about collecting unemployment benefits because of how they were raised and the assumption that it's akin to "seeking charity." You're entitled to your unemployment benefits, and it was paid into a fund for you by your employer with your own blood, sweat, and tears. Also, you aren't committing an illegal act. The benefits are there to relieve you in times when circumstances prevent you from having a job. Each state may vary, but the NY State Department of Labor requires that you are actively job searching. The Cares Act which was passed in March 2020 also may provide some relief. I recommend that you collect the relief you need but to be sure that you meet the criteria by actively searching for a job just in case anyone will hire you.

- The Armchair Psychologist