Turns out seemingly doomed leadership situations don’t have to fail after all.
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Earlier this month, Citigroup appointed Jane Fraser as its next President of Citi & CEO of Global Consumer Banking. Her promotion to CEO is a first for the bank and a first for all Wall Street banks. Fraser has earned a reputation as a “fixer.” Much like former PepsiCo Chairman and CEO Indra K. Nooyi, former Xerox Chairperson and CEO Anne Mulcahy and current GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra, Fraser has climbed the mountain by constantly facing glass-cliff opportunities and turning them into success stories for the bank, its employees, investors and its customers.
A glass cliff describes when a woman is put in a leadership role with a high probability of failure. It’s usually the last-stop effort to turn around an already sinking ship. (A 2013 study conducted by Utah State University found that women and other members of under-represented populations were more likely to be named CEO when the enterprises were floundering.) If and when the ship does actually sink, the female captain at the helm often becomes the scapegoat. Just as often, she’s replaced even if she leads the company to success.
So, now what? When analyzing the women who have transformed a glass-cliff situation into long-term winning opportunities for an insight into how Fraser (or any female CEO) can stay atop her field, three themes emerge: making decisions based on impact to stakeholders; setting priorities, simplifying processes and communicating how each person can be part of the turnaround; and using barriers as the path to the promised land of success. Let’s break then down one at a time.
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Embrace relational decision-maaking. The fast turnaround of GM under Barra’s leadership surprised many. Yet, one look at strategy makes the reason for her success clear. Rather than focus on making herself a winner, she made every decision based on the impact on her company’s top stakeholders. Customers, employees, shareholders and suppliers are at the core of every strategy, program and technology decision. Under her leadership, corporate values shifted to placed customer needs and desires about design, safety and quality at the forefront of their existence. Employees are encouraged to openly share the challenges that get in the way of delivering on promises to customers and to think outside the box in terms of solutions. Supplier relationships have been strengthened along the entire chain, optimizing efficiencies and driving new innovation for superior customer experience. The end result of her relational decision-making approach: Shareholder value continues to be maximized.
Prioritize, simplify and communicate. When Mulcahy took on the role of CEO at Xerox, the company was, among other things, close to filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after six years of record losses and was in the middle of a SEC investigation into accounting improprieties. She and her leadership team prioritized strategic goals and operationalized around them with simpler approaches that broke down silos and unnecessary decision-making complexities. The strategy and operating plans alone were not enough. In a talk at Stanford University, Mulcahy cited the necessity of clearly and frequently communicating their vision and telling people specifically how they can help, enabling everyone in the business to become part of making it a reality.
See every barrier as a winning strategy waiting to happen. Since what seems like forever, the mantra in business is that change is the only constant. Often, it feels more as if chaos is the only constant. Rather than seeing change or crisis as a barrier, Nooyi led PepsiCo to not only accept change, but to truly embrace it. With declining market share across Pepsi’s brands, Nooyi broke her executive team out of their paralysis to turn the company around by embracing changes in the market and viewing conditions as an opportunity to create a new end-to-end approach from ideation to post-sales experience for her company’s brands. In fact, Nooyi was so insistent that barriers were simply disguised opportunities that she invited anyone not willing to shift their mindsets and approaches to leave the company. Turns out, she was right.
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Inherent in each of these factors are the need to put purpose above ego, create a support system inside and outside of work, practice work-life harmony, cultivate strong relationships with board members and disrupt inefficient, ineffective, and inequitable status quos both in business practices as well as in the leader herself. So long as Fraser, or any of us, continues to chart that course, we will be destined for greatness.