Leadership Has Its Rewards

Ken Chenault's low-key yet competitive style has pushed him up the executive ladder and to the CEO's chair

up in an integrated neighborhood of Hempstead, New York, a suburb on Long Island. Today, he and his wife, Kathryn, who is also a lawyer, raise their two sons in the ethnically diverse town of New Rochelle in Westchester County, just north of New York City.

Although his father, Hortenius Chenault, graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ken Chenault elected to go elsewhere. “It’s probably more that I wanted to do something on my own. My father had an exceptional record at Morehouse, and I think maybe subconsciously I wanted to prove that I could operate in an environment that was different,” recalls Chenault.

He says his father took his decision to attend Bowdoin College in Maine well. The elder Chenault was satisfied with the reasons his son wanted to go there, especially after he met the other African Americans who attended the school. Besides, he knew his son was in good company, as one of his acquaintances, the late Benjamin “Benny” E. Mays-then president of Morehouse-had attended Bates College, also located in Maine. “Bowdoin was an all-male school with about 1,000 guys, maybe 30 of whom were black,” recalls Douglas C. Lyons, editorial writer for the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and a classmate of Chenault’s. “Ken was a part of the Afro-Am[erican] Society at Bowdoin. He was there at the debates when guys would gather around talking about what they wanted to do and what was going on at the time. He was involved, but he was focused. Ken worked hard to be prepared. He always impressed us as being prepared. You may not always agree, but he had a handle on five sides of an issue and worked hard at the preparation.”

He sharpened his analytical skills and persuasive powers after attending Harvard Law School, where he was moot court champion.

One top executive search firm consultant says Chenault is a confident man who cares about bringing tangible results to his company’s shareholders. “If a man at that level-black, white or green-doesn’t have a certain amount of ego or fire, then he can’t do the job. You have to be pleasant to be around, but decisive and clinical about your decisions while remaining humane, and he has all those qualities.”

He got the “fire” from his father, whom, he says, was very achievement-oriented, and impressed upon him the need to maintain his personal and professional obligations and commitments. His mother, Anne, taught him how to listen and be open while maintaining balance in his life. Says Chenault: “You don’t get too high about the highs, and you don’t get too low about the lows. They taught me to focus on performance and not on myself.”

When asked what his father would think of his ascension to the pinnacle of corporate success, he says, “He’d be proud but not boastful. And he’d tell me to keep moving and looking forward.”

It’s advice that Chenault is heeding to this day, as he focuses forward to 2001.

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