A world of glass ceilings and sticky floors. That’s how one observer describes the corporate arena as African Americans have tried innumerable times, without success, to break into the very upper echelon of corporate management. In 1988, BLACK ENTERPRISE first posed the question, “Who will be the first Black CEO of a Fortune 500 company?” With a field crowded with worthy contenders poised to grasp the brass ring, it seemed like a response wouldn’t be long in coming. But nearly a decade later, there’s still no definitive answer.
A serious contender has emerged from a field of deserving candidates. Ken Chenault’s recent appointment as president and chief operating officer of American Express Corp. places him within a hair’s breadth of becoming the first African American to run one of the largest firms in the country. With revenue’s of $15.8 billion in 1996, American Express was recently ranked by Forbes magazine as the 65th largest enterprise in the U.S. Chenault’s steady ascendancy marks a potential watershed moment illustrating how far African Americans can actually climb up the corporate ladder.
“There have been a number of people before and after me who clearly possess the capabilities to run a large firm,” says Chenault. “That’s why it’s so important to look at me not as an exception but rather as someone who was given the opportunity to succeed.”
Not surprisingly, Chenault’s designation as CEO-in-waiting is being hailed by other African Americans in the CEO pipeline as deserving and long overdue. Much more than an individual achievement for the Harvard Business School grad, the appointment is seen as affirmation that given the chance, African Americans are willing and able to take the lead and successfully run billion-dollar corporations.
“Ken got on at the first stop of the train and is at the threshold of riding through to the end of the line,” says Time Warner President Richard Parsons, who is one of a chosen few within reach of a CEO chair. “But he did not get where he is by accident or some secret pathway,” adds Parsons. “He started this run several years ago. The important thing is you have to start with one breaking down that door.”
Many have remarked that American Express Chairman and CEO Harvey Golub’s selection of Chenault as the primary internal candidate for the top spot in seven years, when he retires, was unusual in its candor and forward thinking. But Golub’s adulation of Chenault was nothing short of glowing as he praised him for spearheading a number of initiatives at the company over his 16-year career. Among them are his efforts to segment American Express’s charge card business, expand the credit card and other consumer lending businesses, increase merchant coverage and reengineer other key business programs. “Ken has played a major role in building confidence in American Express, both inside and outside the company,” says Golub. “This move clearly recognizes Ken as the No. 2 executive in the company and the primary internal candidate to succeed me when the time comes.”