Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Reaching for the Top With Everyday Tools

You can break through.

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Do you feel that you've gone as far as you can with your current employer? Despite knowing that you have much more potential, is there a limit for "people like you" in your organization?

If so, you've hit what's known as the "glass ceiling." This is the point at which you can clearly see the next level of promotion – yet, despite your best effort, an invisible barrier seems to stop you from proceeding.

Traditionally, the glass ceiling was a concept applied to women and some minorities. It was very hard, if not impossible, for them to reach upper management positions. No matter how qualified or experienced, they simply were not given opportunities to further advance their careers.

Today, there are many more women and minorities in powerful positions. However, the glass ceiling is still very real. And it's not always limited to gender or race.

Have you been pushed up against a glass ceiling? This can happen for many different reasons. Are you too much the champion of change? Do you have difficulty communicating your ideas? Are you quieter and less outgoing than the people who get promotions?

Whatever the reason, you have a choice. You can accept your situation and be happy with looking up and not being able to touch what you see, or you can smash the glass with purpose and determination.

If you do, indeed, want to break through that glass, here are some steps to take.

Identify the Key Competencies within Your Organization

Key competencies are the common skills and attributes of the people in your company's upper levels. These skills are often tied closely to the organization's culture and vision.

Companies that value innovation and strive to be leaders will probably promote individuals who are outgoing, risk takers, and not afraid to "tell it like it is." However, if you work for a conservative company (such as a publicly owned utility) chances are that top management are analytical thinkers, with a reputation for avoiding risk and making careful decisions.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the values of your organization?
  • What behaviors does your company value and reward?
  • What type of person is promoted?

Understand what sets your company and its leaders apart. This is the first step toward discovering how to position yourself for a top leadership role.

To further clarify these ideas, read Core Competence Analysis   and Deal and Kennedy's Cultural Model  .

Two universal competencies for top management are effective leadership and effective communication. Each of these is complex.

  • Read everything you can about leadership styles, skills, and attributes. Mind Tools has an excellent collection of articles on Leadership Skills. You may also want to consider taking the Mind Tools How to Lead course.
  • Communication skills will help you, regardless of the level you want to reach in your career. Start with the introduction to communication   skills, and learn to use as many of these tools as possible.

Set Objectives to Align Your Competencies with Top Management

Once you know your target, set goals to get there. You're responsible for determining your own career direction. Be proactive and go after what you want, because it probably won't be handed to you.

Do the following:

  • Let your boss know that you want to work toward a higher-level position.
  • Ask your boss what skill areas you need to develop.
  • Work together with your boss to set goals and objectives, then monitor and measure your performance.

Remember to concentrate on areas of your performance that you can improve. Don't set a goal to achieve a certain position by a certain time. This can be discouraging if it doesn't happen. For example, set a goal to consistently demonstrate assertive and clear communication. If you achieve that goal, no matter what job title you have, you've succeeded! See Personal Goal Setting   for more ideas on how to define motivating goals.

Build Your Network

You should also build relationships with other people in your organization. You never know who may be in a position to help you or provide you with valuable information.

It's important to network in all areas and levels of your company. Many people tend to think it's best to make friends at the top. However, to be effective and actually make it to the top, you'll need the support of colleagues at other levels as well.

Try these tips:

  • Reach out to new people on a regular basis.
  • Get involved with cross-functional teams.
  • Expand your professional network outside of your organization. If you can't break the glass ceiling in your company, you may have to look elsewhere for opportunities.

Read more about Professional Networking  .

Use the climate in your organization to your advantage. While "politicking" is often seen as negative, you can help your career by understanding and using the political networks in your company. See Dealing with Office Politics  .

Find a Mentor

Having a mentor is a powerful way to break through the glass ceiling. The barriers that you face have likely been there for a long time. Past practices, biases and stereotypes, and old ideas are often long established at the top of many organizations.

Is upper management reluctant to work with certain types of individuals? Do they exclude certain people from important communications? A mentor can help you learn how to get connected to the information and people who can help you. A mentor can also be a great source of ideas for your professional development and growth.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there someone in upper management you can approach to help you?
  • Will your boss be able to provide mentoring support?
  • Are there people with strong political power who can offer you assistance?

Read Finding a Mentor   for details on what to look for in a mentor and ideas on how to find one.

Build Your Reputation

Ultimately, the way to get ahead is to get noticed. You want people to see your competence, leadership abilities, communication skills, technical knowledge, and any other competencies that are typical of people at the top.

Develop your skills and network with people so that your name becomes associated with top management potential. To do this, you need to build a reputation as the kind of person who fits the description of top management. Visibility is very important. Remember, while you can see up, those at the top can see down. Make sure that what they see is you!

Follow these guidelines:

  • Seek high-profile projects.
  • Speak up and contribute in meetings.
  • Share ideas with peers as well as people in higher positions.
  • Identify places where your reputation is not what you want it to be, and develop plans to change them.

For more tips on building the right kind of reputation, see What's Your Reputation?  

Know Your Rights

Finally, watch for discriminatory behavior. Sometimes biases and stereotyping can cross the line into discrimination. It's unfortunate for both you and your organization when situations like this occur.

Don't just accept frustration and failure. Know that you're doing everything right, and arm yourself with a good understanding of your rights regarding official company policies and local laws.

The Mind Tools article on Avoiding Discrimination   shows you how to protect yourself if you face this regrettable situation.

Key Points

To get ahead and reach the leadership level you want, you need to champion and market yourself. That means proactively managing every step of your career. If you can't seem to break through a glass ceiling, you might have to work harder than others.

We can't all be exactly the type of upper management person our company wants. What we can do is develop the skills that the company values. Arm yourself with a development plan as well as the help of your boss, a strong network, and, hopefully, a mentor. You can then build and showcase the skills that will help you climb the corporate ladder. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone, and you may find new zones of opportunity.

Apply This to Your Life

If you're frustrated with your career advancement, consider the following:

  • Do you have a career plan in place? If you don't, now is the time to make one!
  • Does your boss, or anyone in your organization, know what your goals are? Unless people know what you want, they may keep you in the same position and assume you're happy there.
  • Do you feel alone and unsupported in your career goals? If so, who can help you change that? We all need to make our own success, but most people don't succeed all on their own. Ask for support and assistance – this is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  • What areas for skill development have been pointed out to you in the past? Are you making improvements?
  • Are you facing a glass ceiling? Recognizing that the ceiling exists is the first step. The ceiling won't be removed unless you do something about it. Apply some of the ideas in this article, and monitor your progress.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (8)
  • graphicbaz_ir wrote Over a month ago
    perfect article...
  • caz66 wrote Over a month ago
    Cos - this is SUCH an interesting concept. I'm a Programme Office Administrator, and have done other complex-admin jobs, and although I definitely feel it's my role to free up our project analysts and project managers from admin stuff so that they can focus on hyigher level things (after all, there's no point in them being paid at project manager rates only to spend time organising meetings), I'm aware that a lot of them are quite wet about admin issues, and often quite poor about their spreadsheet/MS Word usage too.

    Maybe avoiding developing these skills (or, dare I say it, pretending that they don't have them) has helped them get to where they are today...

  • cobberas wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all

    I've recently discovered that a big contributor to the glass ceiling syndrome is the 'sticky floor' phenomenon - making yourself so indispensable at a lower level that your employer won't promote you because they can't find anyone else to do that dull but essential job as well as you can. Stepping off that sticky floor can require a huge amount of assertive discussion, I've found!

  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Congratulations Yvette!

    Sounds like it was a long slog to get to where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's really disappointing and frustrating when you're held back by something that shouldn't matter. I guess companies have their rules, that doesn't mean you have to sit tight and accept the situation though.

    How has it been for you this past year, knowing you're going to move on and yet still having a job to do with your current company? That's often an emotional struggle and one where motivation becomes a real issue.

    Good for you for being proactive and finding yourself the right kind of position for your needs and qualifications. Please let us know how you get on in this new job.

  • yvetter wrote Over a month ago
    Know exactly what this involves - the glass ceiling, in the job I'm currently in, is based on the Chartered Accountancy qualification alone. To advertise as a Chartered Accountancy practice 75% of the partners have to be qualified - I'm not so there is no further career progression available, along with the other 3 managers.

    It's taken me 12 months to find another position - start in January - where I'll have more autonomy and recognition for the work I can do and hopefully have that commitment to the firm recognised rather than abused.

    Can't wait now.

  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Isn't that the truth aeonima!

    You really do have to be careful about what you decide to "go for". That's why we put so much emphasis on career planning and self discovery. There certainly are no guarantees, however, if you do your homework the chances of finding/making the the right career move certainly improve.

    Thanks for the reminder and welcome to the forum. It's great to hear from you!

  • aeonima wrote Over a month ago
    It might be a nice idea to figure out what's above the ceiling - really the blue sky (or the heaven) you are expecting?

    Having come to this situation before, led me to the triple: love it (and smash the ceiling), leave it (stay below the ceiling) or leave it (i.e. the company).

    It certainly depends...

    Good luck and be careful with your wishes - you may get it


  • dp7622 wrote Over a month ago
    I looked through a glass ceiling at the last job I had before heading out on my own and becoming an independent consultant. For a while all I wanted was to smash that ceiling. Unfortunately when I took a real hard look at why the ceiling was there I realized it was because I just couldn't be the "type" that smashed through. I wanted to get through the ceiling on my merit and bring more of who I was to upper management. That was just not going to happen with this organization.

    So some glass ceilings are worth smashing through but make sure that you'll only suffer surface wounds in the attempt. If the glass hits a major artery you risk having the life sucked out of you and becoming less than who you really want to be.

    What a cynical attitude I know. Must be residual resentment.


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