By Ryan Velez
Black Enterprise has announced that Kenneth Chenault is to retire from American Express in February 2018 after serving as the company’s chief executive for the past 16 years. Perhaps the most notable fact here is that Chenault’s departure means that there are only three Black executives leading America’s largest companies: Ken Frazier of Merck; Roger Ferguson of TIAA; and JCPenney’s Marvin Ellison.
In 2007, this number was at 7. By 2016, this number dropped to five following the departure of Ursula Burns from Xerox. This was notable as Burns was both the first and last African American woman to be appointed as CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
Ronald C. Parker, the president and CEO of The Executive Leadership Council (ELC), called the retirement a bittersweet moment. “While we are excited about his success, we are also alarmed and disappointed that we have lost another iconic leader of a Fortune 500 company who is a black CEO,” he told Black Enterprise.
Equally concerning is the fact that there isn’t necessarily a wealth of younger CEOs being groomed to fill these positions. In fact, this could make the Black CEO class an endangered species. We have to get boards of directors and those who are responsible for succession planning of CEOs much more intentional in identifying talented individuals early on in their executive leadership career trajectory and getting them in position to be considered for the role of chairman and CEO of Fortune 500 companies,” says Parker.
The lack of diversity in boardrooms is a major issue in this regard. African American men hold just 5.6% of board seats and only 2.2% of seats are held by Black women, according to the ELC. “It’s the responsibilities of the board of directors, which we know is not reflective of the population that companies serve. Almost 80% of boards are run by white males,” says Parker. Board members are naturally likely to recruit people similar to them.
However, Parker was quick to praise Chenault for his contribution both to the ELC and American Express. “We are so very proud of the legacy of leadership that Ken has demonstrated over his illustrious career,” Parker said in a press release. “He guided the company through the difficult days of 9-11 as the new CEO of American Express, and once again during one of the most challenging global economic recessions of our time. Ken has always been a true model of courageous leadership, operating with the utmost integrity and distinction as demonstrated by his co-chairing and championing the fundraising efforts for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and playing a vital role in the creation of the ELC’s CEO Academy and board diversity initiatives.”