Someone’s Knocking At The Door

Kenneth Chenault's appointment as president and COO of American Express threatens to shatter one ofthe final barriers to corporate America's top spot

the instability that comes with a competitive corporate environment, seven years can be a lifetime. And while Chenault seems perched now, no one has handed him the key to the castle yet. The corridors of corporate America are littered with one-time up-and-coming star executives who, for myriad reasons, never made it to the head chair they seemed destined for. Whether it was Bob Holland’s abrupt tenure at Ben & Jerry’s, or Dennis Hightower’s hasty resignation from Disney, the last hurdles have been the most difficult to overcome.

In fact, it was almost 10 years ago that an African American was last poised to take the helm of a Fortune 500 firm. Jerry O. Williams, then president and COO of AM International, was hailed as one of the “25 Most Powerful Black Executives in Corporate America” by BE in 1988. Indeed, Williams received much of the same accolades as Chenault from then chairman and CEO Merle H. Banta: “If I leave, he [Williams] is my successor,” Banta declared, thus setting the stage for Williams to one day lead the then $1.2 billion graphics equipment company. But just months later, when Williams and Banta did not see eye-to-eye on the company’s future direction, he resigned.

Besides Chenault, there are others who might one day claim the CEO seat. There’s Richard D. Nanula, president of Disney Stores Worldwide, Walt Disney’s retailing arm. Or perhaps A. Barry Rand, president of Xerox’s U.S Marketing Group, another often-mentioned candidate. Regardless of who or when, optimistic onlookers say breaking the CEO barrier is inevitable.

“If it’s not Kenny, it will be someone else, says Parsons.” And anytime there is a pioneer that breaks through first, there are other people that will pile in behind him once someone creates a new paradigm. Once you become aware that something is an achievable objective, then you become emboldened to try, he adds.

For his part, Chenault has generally downplayed race as a factor during his long tenure at the company. Yet he acknowledges a spotlight will be placed more firmly on him now. “With American Express being a large publicly held company, I would be scrutinized under any circumstance. If you don’t enhance shareholder value, it doesn’t matter who you are, you will have a problem,” he says. “But there is no doubt that in some sectors of corporate America, people will be looking. And if I do well, I would be very hopeful that would encourage other companies to give people the opportunity to succeed.”

Indeed, with the rash of reported racial discrimination cases that have hit the courts in recent months (see “Corporate America’s Black Eye,” April 1997) many diversity experts have seen increased minority participation at the upper echelons of the corporate structure as one of the surest means to achieving a bias-free workplace. If nothing else, leaping the CEO hurdle could send a clear directive that the time has come for yet another barrier to fall.

“When that obstacle is broken and you have an African American who is the CEO

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