When New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose Cathie Black, the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, to be chancellor of the city’s public school system, there were about five seconds of media speechlessness, followed by several weeks of outrage. huh? squawked the Daily News. Parents protested and threatened lawsuits. Despite her long and successful career as a publishing executive—Bloomberg called her a “superstar manager”—Black had never worked in education and didn’t seem to have thought much about public schools. Her own two children had attended private schools. And this was a troubled moment for New York administrators: A recalibration of state tests had resulted in a drop in scores, and a documentary, Waiting for “Superman,” made the entire American public school system look like an elaborately constructed failure machine. Nor would Black be undertaking a small job: There are more than a million children in the city’s public schools, served by 135,000 teachers and staff (at Hearst Magazines, Black oversaw a team of 2,000). In addition, Black needed to get a waiver from the state because there were legal requirements for the position—graduate training, time in a classroom—that she didn’t meet. In the end, though, neither that nor the public dismay mattered. Black got the waiver, although she had to appoint an experienced deputy chancellor as her “chief academic officer.” She started work in January, less than two months after the first shocked headline.
Whether Black makes a success of the job won’t be clear for many months, if not years (though her recent joking suggestion that birth control might be a solution to school overcrowding was an inauspicious start). But her appointment is not an isolated example of inexperience rising to the top: Recent hires in business and elections to Congress suggest that when institutions and organizations are alarmed by the status quo, turning to someone from a different field can become acceptable or even fashionable. Cathie Black most likely wouldn’t have been considered for the spot if there hadn’t been deep unhappiness with public school systems across the country—if it hadn’t come to seem that knowing how schools were run meant simply having practice in repeating the mistakes of the past. “If an organization is in trouble, it is more likely to bring in an outsider,” says Boris Groysberg, associate professor in the organizational-behavior unit at Harvard Business School. The idea conjures a compelling image: the white knight riding in to restore order to the kingdom. Or as Daniel Pink, author of the best-selling business books A Whole New Mind and Drive, puts it, “It’s an image you see even in religion—the untainted hero who will come in and solve the mess.”
There’s also the heroine. For women, who may be denied access to traditional paths to power, a moment in which outsiders are welcomed presents tremendous opportunity. Of course, taking a chance in a new field is not without risk, and a woman who leaps can find herself teetering on what is known as a glass cliff, cousin of the glass ceiling. “In difficult or transitional times, women are more likely to be chosen for leadership jobs in which the likelihood of failure is high,” says Barbara Lee, a Boston philanthropist who started a foundation, which bears her name, to promote women in politics and the arts. Cliffs are dangerous—but they’re also exciting for the chances they offer.