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

How to Learn Much More From the Books You Read

It is one thing to read and another thing to understand what you are reading. Not only do you want to understand, but also remember what you've read. Otherwise, we can safely say that if we're not gaining anything from what we read, then it's a big waste of time.

Whatever you read, there are ways to do so in a more effective manner to help you understand better. Whether you are reading by choice, for an upcoming test, or work-related material, here are a few ways to help you improve your reading skills and retain that information.

Read with a Purpose

Never has there been a shortage of great books. So, someone recommended a great cookbook for you. You start going through it, but your mind is wandering. This doesn't mean the cookbook was an awful recommendation, but it does mean it doesn't suit nor fulfill your current needs or curiosity.

Maybe your purpose is more about launching a business. Maybe you're a busy mom and can't keep office hours, but there's something you can do from home to help bring in more money, so you want information about that. At that point, you won't benefit from a cookbook, but you could gain a lot of insight and find details here on how-to books about working from home. During this unprecedented year, millions have had to make the transition to work from home, and millions more are deciding to do that. Either way, it's not a transition that comes automatically or easily, but reading about it will inform you about what working from home entails.


When you pre-read it primes your brain when it's time to go over the full text. We pre-read by going over the subheadings, for instance, the table of contents, and skimming through some pages. This is especially useful when you have formal types of academic books. Pre-reading is a sort of warm-up exercise for your brain. It prepares your brain for the rest of the information that will come about and allows your brain to be better able to pick the most essential pieces of information you need from your chosen text.


Highlighting essential sentences or paragraphs is extremely helpful for retaining information. The problem, however, with highlighting is that we wind up highlighting way too much. This happens because we tend to highlight before we begin to understand. Before your pages become a neon of colored highlights, make sure that you only highlight what is essential to improve your understanding and not highlight the whole page.

Speed Read

You might think there have been no new ways to read, but even the ancient skill of reading comes up with innovative ways; enter speed reading. The standard slow process shouldn't affect your understanding, but it does kill your enthusiasm. The average adult goes through around 200 to 250 words per minute. A college student can read around 450 words, while a professor averages about 650 words per minute, to mention a few examples. The average speed reader can manage 1,500 words; quite a difference! Of course, the argument arises between quality and quantity. For avid readers, they want both quantity and quality, which leads us to the next point.

Quality Reading

Life is too short to expect to gain knowledge from just one type of genre. Some basic outcomes of reading are to expand your mind, perceive situations and events differently, expose yourself to other viewpoints, and more. If you only stick to one author and one type of material, you are missing out on a great opportunity to learn new things.

Having said that, if there's a book you are simply not enjoying, remember that life is also too short to continue reading it. Simply, close it, put it away and maybe give it another go later on, or give it away. There is no shame or guilt in not liking a book; even if it's from a favorite author. It's pretty much clear that you won't gain anything from a book that you don't even enjoy, let alone expect to learn something from it.


If you're able to summarize what you have read, then you have understood. When you summarize, you are bringing up all the major points that enhance your understanding. You can easily do so chapter by chapter.

Take a good look at your life and what's going on in it. Accordingly, you'll choose the material that is much more suitable for your situation and circumstances. When you read a piece of information that you find beneficial, look for a way to apply it to your life. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge isn't all that beneficial. But the application of knowledge from a helpful book is what will help you and make your life more interesting and more meaningful.