Breaking Through Glass Ceilings

October 29, 2014 by
Filed under: Leadership, Teamwork 

In the workplace, there has been a long-standing issue around a “glass-ceiling”, typically described as a limit beyond which it is difficult for women to rise in a male-oriented business environment. This may manifest itself as lower salaries (no karma jokes here) or challenges in advancing through the ranks. My experience is that this is a far more nuanced issue than simply a gender-based bias in the workplace, and has roots that can be traced back through a gender imbalance in many business and engineering programs in schools, and biases and choices made in raising our children, cultural biases, and how we all manage our relationships in life.

There are other phenomena that I see in business that I would call glass-ceilings as well, and in pondering these we might discover some perspectives that help us understand and potentially manage that more traditional glass-ceiling. As I attempt to distill them to their essence, these share a common root: consultants, service providers and product salesmen tend to sell you what you are asking for, rather than what will best serve your needs.

This most strongly manifests itself in the world of process improvement or management services, where there is a prominent approach in the marketplace, and as companies hear success stories (which are always more strongly promoted than the challenges, and lead the media charge), they decide they need some of that, too. They call their favourite service provider, who happens to be selling the flavour of the day, and they engage in a transaction that nicely lines that service provider’s pocket, and provides a brief bump in productivity in the organization.

Been there, done that. In the tech world, I’ve seen interest in the CMM, in ISO standards, in this unified process or that one, and in an ongoing cavalcade of approaches that all fall under the agile branding juggernaut. Each one has been touted as the next big thing, and each one has supported many service providers, including more than a couple that I know that have been on every one of those bandwagons in their career.

Hell, I was involved in this stuff myself until I consciously got off the bandwagon about 15 years ago. I’ve been there, and the term I would use to describe it is usurious.

In each case, the latest approach is a must-have, all predecessors are crap. In their time they are all easy to sell, ‘cause that is what people are looking for. No need for understanding what’s really needed if we can cut a contract today. I’ve said it before – if someone wants to sell you a particular approach to managing your projects before they understand your project, your culture and your environment, make sure the door hits them on the ass as you send them on their merry way, as they are putting their self-interests before yours.

This selling what you think you should be asking for is also in play in the area of designations and certifications. The governing bodies for these letters you can obtain after your name suggest a strong relationship to excellence and project success, but in the real world, your results may vary.

I’ve had a PMP designation for over a decade, and I believe it to be at best a learner’s permit rather than a certification of excellence. It merely attests to the fact that you have a baseline of experience (which need not be on successful projects), a week’s worth of PM training, and passed a multiple guess exam based on their body of knowledge, which is severely constrained in that it fails to address the soft-skills required to be an effective leader.

The designation (and its sister designations) have been very successfully promoted, though, and in many organizations the PMP has become a requirement if you are applying to a junior or intermediate PM role in the company. If that’s where your job search is headed, then you can think of the PMP as a necessary hurdle you need to get over, but know that you are headed into a very crowded job market, and having the designation is not the strong differentiator it once was.

Then there’s the additional challenge that extra letters after someone’s name can lead one to believe they have better answers than others in the group, which is a dangerous presumption in itself. Long story there, but if interested, I’ve got data that backs that assertion…

Rolling all this back to the original and predominant view of a glass ceiling, I think what all of these have in common is a failure based on presumptuous constraints on our thinking. We presume that a dominant certification is directly related to excellence, we presume that a popular approach to organizing projects will be an effective approach to the next one we tackle, we presume that there is an organizational barrier beyond which we cannot pass.

I have no doubt that there are some organizations that even consciously promote and foster an ‘old boy’s network’ that limits passage of females into their ranks, just like those stodgy old country clubs, but this is not a universal occurrence. I have no doubt that Agile approaches have served some groups very well and that attaining the PMP designation has been a useful step in the path toward project management excellence for some, but I know damned well these certainly are not nearly as universal as the pundits would have you believe. Don’t let popular discussion or externally-driven perceptions narrow your view of what is possible.

If we allow ourselves to be led by traditional thinking, or by sales pitches of consultants or self-promoted industry leaders, or by ‘the way it’s always been’ or by the latest shiny new innovation, we allow ourselves to be constrained by limitations that have been forced upon us. Our possibilities constrained, our solution space becomes limited and our achievements stifled. We hit a glass ceiling.

Instead, it is incumbent on ourselves to think out of these boxes, to understand that each of our situations are unique. There is no one size fits all, there is no anointing that will make your thinking better than others, there is no universal oppression or conspiracy preventing our advancement.

You may find these things actually do exist in the workplace you are at, after careful consideration. If that is the case, work on breaking through these presumptions and opening a dialogue about appropriate ways to view situations and address issues, rather than leaning on tradition or sales-based biases. Think out-of-the-box, think fresh ideas, think about taking what is often an unconscious cultural impediment and raising it to the conscious level. Name that big fat elephant in the room and work together on removing it from your space.

And if the organization and the people you are working with are unable to see things clearly, think seriously about finding one that will – they may be rarer than we would like, but they are out there. – JB


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