The Umbrella Ceiling

5 minute read time.


My wife, Cathalynn, and I were recently discussing issues with people moving to other cities to pursue their careers and the hard decisions that were involved in doing this. My nephew, Ian Smith, is just starting his career and when choosing where to work has to consider what it takes to grow in the role he eventually accepts. When I started at Computer Associates, if you wanted to move up in the organization past a certain point, then you had to move to the company headquarters in New York. Similarly, when Cathalynn was working at Motorola, the upwardly mobile had to relocate to Schaumburg, Illinois.

From Cathalynn Labonté-Smith

Recently, Vancouver hosted a Heritage Classic hockey game at BC Place as have many cities across Canada. An outdoor rink facsimile was made inside an indoor venue to recreate a 1915 game complete with original uniforms and “snow”. The plan was to retract the ceiling on the dome but a torrential downpour kept the giant umbrella deployed. Despite the nostalgia of the game the Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators were playing for real—this game counted for NHL points, so the integrity of the ice had to be maintained.

We’ve all heard of the glass ceiling. Indeed, yesterday (March 8th) it was International Women’s Day—a day to reflect on all aspects of women’s’ equality and well-being. In the corporate world, how are we doing? According to Catalyst only 4.6% of Fortune 1000 companies have women CEOs (

We’ve all heard of hitting the glass ceiling, however; living on the West Coast working in the high technology sector we have what I call an umbrella ceiling that applies to both genders. Umbrella in the down or sun position--you are blessed with a lifestyle that promotes health and well-being with a year-round outdoor playground and cultural diversity. Umbrella in the up or rain position—you are blocked from moving on to a top job within any corporation that has a head office outside of British Columbia you have to leave. We’ve been to many a tearful going away party. But then if you stay as the Smiths have where are roots and family are, you many spend your weekends hiking, snowboarding, cycling, gardening, wine-tasting, cross-border shopping to Seattle and in many other wonderful pursuits, so that’s cool too.

Does it have to continue to be this way? With all the technology like Skype, other teleconferencing software, cloud applications, mobile phones, portals, access to travel and other collaborative tools that are available why do corporations still tend to centralize top officers in one location? Or, can companies truly embrace the mobile workforce including more females at the CEO level. Are they missing out on or losing top talent for this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-itism?

I’m turning this over to the expert, Mr. Steve himself. Cat out.

Physical versus Virtual Offices

A lot of discussion comes down to how important is face-to-face interaction. How much can be done virtually via Skype, e-mail, telepresence, chat and other collaborative technologies?

My own experience is that there are a lot of communication problems that can easily be cleared up face-to-face. Often without direct interaction, misunderstandings multiply and don’t get resolved. Probably the worst for this is e-mail. Generally, programmers don’t like to talk on the phone and so will persist with e-mail threads that lead nowhere for far too long rather than just picking up the phone and resolving the issue.

But with video calls so routine can much be handled this way instead and physical meetings kept to a minimum? Another thing that limits interactions is living in different time zones and how much time you have to interact. For example, I have days bookended by early morning and late evening conference calls.

Generally, office design has improved over the years as well to better facilitate team work and collaboration. If you aren’t in this environment are you as productive as the people that are?

Tim Bray leaves Google to stay in Vancouver

A recent high profile case of this was Tim Bray who worked at Google but lives in Vancouver. He gave a quick synopsis on his blog here. Google has a reputation as a modern web cloud company, and yet here is a case where having someone physically present is the most important qualification for the job. If Google can’t solve this problem, does anyone else have a chance?

Though personally it seems that Tim accepted the position at Google with the assumption of moving to California, so it seems a bit passive aggressive, then staying in Vancouver and just pretending he would move.

Mobility of CEOs

The ultimate metric of all this is how mobile is the CEO of a company. Does the CEO have to physically be present in the corporate headquarters for a significant percentage of their time? Does the CEO have to have a residence in the same city as the corporate headquarters? Is even the idea of a physical corporate headquarters relevant anymore in today’s world?

Many top executives spend an awful lot of their time on airplanes and in hotels. To some degree does it really matter where they live? After for modern global companies often to have the necessary face to face time with all the right people can’t be done from the corner office. Is the life of an executive similar to the life of George Clooney in Up in the Air?

I think if the CEO is in a fixed location then the upwardly mobile are going to be attracted to that location like moths to a flame. I think there is a strong fear in people of being out of the loop and for executives this can be quite career limiting.


I tend to think that face-to-face interaction and working together physically as a team has a lot of merit. Just breaking down the barriers to communications in this sort of tight knit environment can still be challenging.

I find that working remotely works very well for some people. But these people have to be strongly self-motivated and have to be able to work without nearly as much direct supervision or oversight.

I’m finding that the tools for communicating remotely are getting better and better and that this does then allow more people to work remotely, but at this point anyway, we can’t go 100% down this road.

If you have any thoughts on this, leave a comment at the end of the article.