How can I deal with a ‘glass ceiling’?

March 1, 2007
How do I deal with something that feels like a “glass ceiling”?
1304qa Chang New

How do I deal with something that feels like a “glass ceiling”?

It is easy to feel like you are being discriminated against when you are passed over for promotion or not getting the anticipated performance recognition. While discrimination does exit, it is also possible that the belief that discrimination is involved is our way of rationalizing that “it is not my fault.” It is only prudent that you make an objective assessment before pointing the finger.

Assuming you are being discriminated against, you can avoid being victimized by moving on to work in another company. My feeling is that when a company condones this practice, it probably has many other problems as well. You can take legal action, but it is difficult to gather the proof that would allow you to prevail. So unless you are doing it for a cause, it is probably not worth your time.

If it is due to lack of performance, then you would want to stay put, face the issue, and take concrete steps to improve. Changing your job would deprive you of the opportunity to get to the root cause and you are likely to find yourself in the same pickle no matter where you go. What you want to avoid is being a victim of the insidious damage caused by the subtle put-down that makes you believe that “I am not good enough” or “I can’t do it.” It is important that you deal with this issue rather than letting it simmer

My board is pushing me to hire a CEO and then I would become chairman. How do I recruit one and how should I interact with the new CEO?

This is likely to be a difficult transition and is probably the biggest crisis an entrepreneur would come to face. Unfortunately, the same script plays out again and again. It is a drama that most people wish would have happened differently, with 20:20 hindsight.

It might be easier if you recognize that stepping aside is probably unavoidable. If your directors are worth their salt, they must have come to this conclusion objectively. You are either doing a poor job or have done such a good job that the business has outgrown your rate of learning. The reality is that most entrepreneurs are more suitable for starting a company than for running one, and there will therefore come a time for the current CEO to move on. Nothing personal!

In the search, the implicit objective usually is to find a “superman” with domain knowledge, who can swoop in to make everything fine. Actually, more important than domain knowledge are the attitude and the ability to orchestrate people to work as a team. Focusing on basic qualities would allow you to have a larger pool of potential candidates. Even if the new CEO does not have domain knowledge of the photonics business, he or she could soon learn from you and the existing executives to develop the right strategy with a fresh viewpoint brought from other industries. I would also put a great deal of emphasis on the candidate being energetic and positive. One of the most important responsibilities of a CEO is to come up with a sound strategy. People who lack energy are not likely to pursue a strategy that involves a lot of work, and people who are pessimistic are likely to miss opportunities by focusing on what won’t work instead of figuring out how to make things work.

To figure out the right level of interaction, you can emulate what “grandparents” do-love the company, but detach from the specifics. That is, feel responsible to provide the best input from your perspective and leave the decision to the new CEO so that he or she can establish leadership. You are likely to alienate the new administration if you insist on your viewpoint. Of course, all of this is easier said than done, given that it is your “baby” and old habits are hard to change. My advice is for you to find a new project to sink your teeth into, so you can wean yourself from the emotional attachment to your current company.

About the Author

Milton Chang

MILTON CHANG of Incubic Management was president of Newport and New Focus. He is currently director of mBio Diagnostics and Aurrion; a trustee of Caltech; a member of the SEC Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies; and serves on advisory boards and mentors entrepreneurs. Chang is a Fellow of IEEE, OSA, and LIA. Direct your business, management, and career questions to him at [email protected], and check out his book Toward Entrepreneurship at

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