Kenneth I. Chenault recently announced that he is retiring from American Express in February 2018 after serving as the company’s chief executive for the past 16 years. His departure reduces the ranks of black CEOs leading the largest publicly traded corporations, including Kenneth Frazier of Merck & Co.; Roger Ferguson of TIAA; Arnold Donald of Carnival Corp.; and Marvin Ellison of JCPenney.
When BLACK ENTERPRISE released its list of the 100 Most Powerful Executives in Corporate America in 2012, there were eight black CEOs of major publicly traded corporations. Over the last several years, there have been significant departures such as Ursula Burns stepping down from the helm of Xerox after the company completed its restructuring earlier this year. Burns was the first African American woman to be appointed as CEO of one of the nation’s 500 largest corporations.
Ronald C. Parker, the president and CEO of The Executive Leadership Council (ELC), which champions the development of black executives around the world, says Chenault’s retirement is bittersweet. “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.
In fact, black CEOs at the largest publicly traded companies have diminished because African Americans are not being identified and groomed for these positions. “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. He added that the problem stems from the lack of diversity in boardrooms at Fortune 500 companies, where 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. As a result, board directors are selecting leaders whom they look like and identify with.
Nonetheless, Parker praised Chenault for his contributions to the ELC and AmEx, where he worked for a total of 37 years. “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.”
Chenault is slated to stay at Amex until Feb. 1. The 66-year-old corporate leader will be succeeded by Steve Squeri, 58, the current vice chairman of the company.