Reflections on, and in Glass Ceilings

“There is no glass ceiling if you start at the top.”
I read that line this morning in an article praising the glory of entrepreneurship and I thought, that really describes my life now. I mean, no one ever would have promoted me to CEO. I wouldn’t even have been considered a good ‘diversity candidate’. (A diversity candidate, I’ve been told, is one who makes it slightly easier to tell the rest of the finalists apart.) And in addition to that pesky second X chromosome that I carry around, the typical CEO is in the neighborhood of a foot taller than me.
All things considered, it was just easier to start a company and give myself the title, although I have to admit that at the time, no one else wanted it.
On a more serious note, even self-made women CEOs experience well-documented challenges. Try googling “women founders getting venture capital”, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s just a fact that many of the places where you’re expected to ‘pay your dues’ have a sign hanging on the door that says ‘No girls allowed’. (Not literally, of course, but savvy women have no trouble reading between the lines.)
After mulling these things over for a while, the whole line of thinking began to bother me. Like I normally do when I need a reality check, or just someone to bounce my ideas off of, I went to Mark, my Vision Former.
Let me take a moment aside to explain that term. My company created Teamability®, a completely new technology that analyzes and organizes teams based on each person’s innate affinity for serving a specific organizational need. In the language of Teamability, the name of each capital-R ‘Role’ in a team suggests the organizational influence the person will most effectively exert. For example, if you have a grand vision, and have even started a company and gotten it off the ground, you are probably a Founder or a Vision Mover…or perhaps both. If so, you haven’t lived till you’ve worked with a top flight Vision Former, who is your perfect complement and counterbalance.
Now back to the story. I said to Mark, ‘Maybe I just have never paid my dues like people think they have to, and maybe it’s the dues-paying which is why women are frustrated in typical organizations.’ And he disagreed.
One good thing about having someone whose Role complements yours is that you not only expect the occasional disagreement, you welcome it. It means that by the time you work it out (which you always do) you will both truly and lastingly agree on what makes the most sense.
“Really,” he said, “there’s been plenty of dues-paying for both of us.” He went on to say that the ‘no glass ceiling’ phrase – while catchy – isn’t entirely true, and that there’s a glass ceiling for everyone who isn’t a winner in the ‘lucky sperm club’, i.e., born into money and/or power. (And of course we know that those dues are sometimes extracted in other, even less desirable, ways.)
The Vision Former continued: “There’s no quick or easy fix for women (or men) who are frustrated and want to move up in typical organizations. Entrepreneurship can be an escape route, but (using our startup experience an example) look at how crazy you have be in order to take it! Also, the fascination with entrepreneurship plays into the fantasy that life is better and all will be wonderful at the top. It inherently supports an economically hierarchical model of happiness that really doesn’t work for everyone.”
Role-fit is the first step to happiness on the job, because a sense of meaningful contribution becomes intrinsic to one’s activity. After that, happiness is increased when an organization (including one that you own) understands and facilitates Team-fit and Role-pairings. Further down the road, building a team (or a town, or a society) where each person understands and practices Role-respect will open the door to group happiness. All along the way, Coherence gains in strength and influence, and Teaming comes into full bloom.
According to, 44% of new businesses fail within 3 years, and in 76% of the cases, the top reason is incompetence (45%), followed by unbalanced experience and lack of management expertise (30%).
“It’s the people,” said the VF, “not the business.”
Encouraging people to be entrepreneurial when they don’t have the ‘equipment’ for the task (or any way to know whether or not they have it, or where to get it) is not so different from a football coach moving a quarterback to the D-line. It makes no sense, and the outcome is liable to be ugly.
There can be a big advantage in starting and/or being in an entrepreneurial company. It is the opportunity (maybe) to discover who you are and what you really like to do, and it comes from having to serve the organization as chief-cook-and-bottle-washer for a while. People on the big corporate ladder rarely have that much diversity of experience. There is a way to discover who you are, and how you ‘team’ most effectively and happily, without risking the security of your family or future.
Your response to discovering your own Teamability could just as easily be “Now I know I would hate (or love) having my own business,” as “Now I know why I hate my job – I quit,” or “Now I know why I LOVE my job; no thanks, I’d rather not go into management.”
There is the glass ceiling of reality, and a glass box of our own doing. The important question: is yours opaque or transparent?

This post originally appeared on Switch & Shift.

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