The Glass Ceiling

For many years, as the corporate world has evolved, it has been common place to hear many women complaining that they have reached a glass ceiling. In the recent times however, there is a select few men who are being vocal about it and its not on behalf of the significant women in their lives! It is because they have begun experiencing the phenomenon where one realizes that after spending their youthful years of slaving for a corporate master, there is really no higher place to go except laterally or downward. It is also a reality that the phenomenon is named after the fragile nature of glass to show that it can be broken if due pressure is applied to it.

With the high number of startups, micro, small and medium enterprises, it should not come as a surprise that people are increasingly experiencing this phenomenon. It’s like boiling water in a conical glass. As the heat from the bottom increases, so is the pressure inside the cone rising to occupy the space available. If there is a wooden cork at the top, chances are that it will absorb the rising vapor until it cannot anymore, and it will pop out. In there is no room for the popping to occur, chances are that the cone will explode due to the pressure that has built and the end result is cracks and an eventual breaking of the glass.

For many startups and MSMEs, the organization is a tight pyramid and there is a level to which one will rise and from there, the options are limited to taking over after the owner/ founder of the business, joining the board of the company as an advisor, moving laterally to lead or manage one of the branches or outlets of the business, or if it is a franchising model, become a franchisee and run it as your own outfit. In the African context unfortunately, the first two options are as common place as snow on the equator. The third option is only available if company politics are played right and if one is qualified and primarily if there are more than one outlet of the business. Franchising would be a great option, but it also has its challenges like – the rarity of home grown businesses that operate on a franchising model; lack of deliberate attempts at growing business owners from within an organization; weak penetration of the value of generational businesses, among many others.

Against such a background, we can begin to see why more professionals of both genders are increasingly talking about the glass ceiling.

So how can you tell that your organization is suffering from the glass ceiling syndrome and what can you do about it?

Below are just a few pointers that have stood out from many organizations in Africa.

Disquiet among your top performers

Some of this disquiet can be seen in the number of promising people who are leaving your organization for better positions with your competitor or in other industries. If you have been diligent in crafting a succession plan for your organization and you notice that you are losing good talent from the 2nd and 3rd tier of your would-be successors, you might need to review where you stand with your pool of good talent. There is a huge comparative cost of losing your performing staff and pulling them away from the business for a 2 or 3-day retreat to simply hear them out and identify holes that need to be plugged. Additional to hearing them out, be seen to genuinely take up some of their suggestions and implement. Remember that your top performers as a combined force, know your business well; and if they were to all call in sick on the same day, your business will grind to a halt.

Absence of a clear career path

You can’t employ someone and sustain their high-performance output by treating them as just another cog in the wheel of your business. You must demonstrate to them their career path. While truthfully, a career path cannot be crafted for individuals, it must be crafted with the sustenance of the business in mind and with the positions guiding the course. You must demonstrate what opportunities are available in the organization for people. What do I need to get to be a Chief Operating Officer? What do I need to get to be a nonexecutive board member? What opportunities lie beyond the current arm of business if the company has a host of other businesses? Is there opportunity to move laterally or upward from one company to another within the group of companies?

Increasing rejections by potential employees

Generation Y and Z in the interview room are asking some pretty interesting questions. One of the questions is, “what plans does the company have for the career development of the successful candidate during the period of employment?” It’s a challenging question that was not asked five years ago in an interview session by the interviewee. It’s answer however is one that will determine whether you as an organization are a good partner in the journey of their corporate existence.

Companies that have sometimes failed to show this and have also gone on to offer a mediocre package, have been faced with turn downs as candidates fail to take up their offers. Why? Because they couldn’t demonstrate where the candidate would fit progressively.

Many people are moonlighting

In this fast-paced world where it appears as though everyone is programmed to making money, very few employees will confess to not having what is commonly known as a side hustle. So it won’t come as a surprise when you learn that your top performers are moonlighting. However, when it becomes an open secret that they are moonlighting, it sometimes may mean that they are ready for any consequences that may result from the management knowing what they are doing in their private time. Most of the time, the moonlighting is for supplementing an income and satisfying the need of handling more responsibility.

Encouraging intrapreneurship and closely embracing the culture of kaizen (is a grand way of dealing with moonlighting).

You generate and inculcate a culture of building new things within the company hence channeling the efforts that are going into moonlighting towards projects that actually benefit the organization.

Headhunters are having a field day with you

Recruitment agencies that are serious about delivering quality staff to their customers know a perfect hunting ground. They operate like lions, cheetahs and leopards. Hanging around the social joints where your staff have lunch or the Friday being Happy Hour to listen to juicy gossip about the good team player who must be feeling so played because of the recent…. Glass ceilings empower recruiters and once they know you have one, they will definitely make you their target and the years you have invested training your staff will eventually benefit your competitor. You can’t stop your staff from being approached, but you can make it difficult for them to have more pros than cons for you when evaluating the offer on the table. The space available is not sufficient for this subject to be dealt with conclusively but we can try to summarize our learnings.

The glass ceiling is the elephant in the room that no one wants to touch yet everyone, including the labor unions, employer federations and the government know it exists. What we need to remember when managing people in an environment where there is a glass ceiling is that just as it is an undocumented career cut off point, we have an obligation to ensure that people do not walk away from our organizations dejected and feeling frustrated.

Glass it maybe, but shattering that ceiling has consequences on both the organization and the individual who breaks it. As in the physical where removing the shattered glass from one’s hair is a difficult and dangerous job, breaking the corporate glass ceiling leaves the individual bruised emotionally, with a bitter taste in their mouths and their persona soiled in the mire of corporate politics.

CEO of Australia’s second-largest bank, Gail Kelly suggests that organizations can be flexible and supportive hence recognizing people going through different stages in their careers and offer the much needed but varying support. While it is a frontier that many an employer would not go to, out of the box thinking would invite us to explore how best to equip our staff to take advantage of the opportunities that they would meet up with if they decided to step away from under the glass, or if they did break through the glass ceiling and soon found themselves in the neighbors attic.

Glass ceilings, where they exist, should not be broken for the sake of breaking them. They should be turned into glass doors through which anyone wanting to go beyond the limit they see has been set for them, can confidently and accurately stand in the room with others who have succeeded through the same.

Glass it maybe, but shattering that ceiling has consequences on both the organization and the individual who breaks it. Click To Tweet

For more insights on money and business, we recommend the book “The Employee Engagement Mindset: The Six Drivers for Tapping into the Hidden Potential of Everyone in Your Company” by Timothy R. Clark


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