Avoiding the Glass Cliff: Advice to Boards on Preparing for and Supporting New Leaders of Color

Recent reports, research, books, and anecdotal stories have identified concerning trends in the way that nonprofit leaders of color experience their leadership roles, particularly when following an outgoing White leader. This phenomenon is described as a “glass cliff.” This term dates back to research conducted at the University of Exeter, United Kingdom, which revealed that women were promoted into higher positions when organizations were struggling or in crisis and the chance of failure was high, essentially leaving them standing on a “glass cliff.” However, the glass cliff is no longer only relegated to women and has broadened to describe the challenging position many leaders of color find themselves in when they follow White leaders.

BoardSource partnered with Building Movement Project in 2022 to develop a resource to assist boards as they prepare for every stage in leadership transition. It’s outlined in three time frames – before, during, and after – to give clear direction for a transition, as well as empower boards to proactively navigate pitfalls and support the success of incoming leaders of color.

How to Support New Leaders of Color Before a Transition

Too many boards and organizations have not done the work of building an organizational culture that centers racial equity prior to hiring a new leader of color and — as a result — are leaving the responsibility of advancing racial equity within their organization to their new leader. This places an incredible burden on them and may make it difficult for them to succeed in their new role. Boards and staff are encouraged to have ongoing conversations on how the organization is working to create a diverse, inclusive, and equitable working environment and invest time and money to cultivate that organizational culture centered around racial equity.

How to Support New Leaders of Color During Transition & Search

Once an organization is in a moment of transition, meaning they know that their current leader will be stepping down or leaving at a specific time, the board has an opportunity to ensure that the search and entire transition are handled in a way that prioritizes racial equity. If an organization is hiring a search firm, boards should carefully interview and seek firms that have a demonstrated track record of leading searches in a way that prioritizes equity. Examples may include successfully placing leaders of color and demonstrating competence and commitment in identifying and interrupting bias within the selection process.

How to Continue Support After Hiring a Leader of Color

It is easy for a board to think that their job is done and they can step back once a new leader is hired. But — with any new leader, including a new leader of color — the board must continue to support their CEO or executive director in a way that sets them up for success. Beginning with CEO orientation, boards can ensure that new leaders have clarity about the board’s expectations for their first year and set goals together.  Many new leaders, especially leaders of color, fear failure and embrace the idea that they must be perfect in order to be a good leader. However, every leader needs to be able to ask for support when it’s needed. Giving the new leader space is another way boards can continue to offer support. By providing the right plan, adequate space, and mentorship, board members can create open lines of communication and direct support to boost their leader’s confidence and effectiveness.

Whether you’re preparing for an incoming leader or hoping to better support a current executive, explore the full guide to understand how your organization can avoid the glass cliff.

Download the Full Guide to Learn More

Taking the Next Steps Towards Supporting a Leader of Color

While there’s no checklist that can provide a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting a new leader of color, boards have an opportunity to learn from our partnerships and partners in our ecosystem.

Taking the time to consider what can be done before, during, and after an executive transition is an investment in the organization’s future and its commitment to racial equity.

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