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Kenneth Chenault

On Wednesday, Kenneth Chenault announced that he is retiring from American Express in February 2018 after serving as the company’s chief executive for the past 16 years. This leaves just three black executives leading America’s largest companies: Ken Frazier of Merck; Roger Ferguson of TIAA; and JCPenney’s Marvin Ellison.

 

Ken Chenault (Image: Ken Chenault)

 

Back in 2007, there were seven black CEOs heading Fortune 500 companies. But by 2016, there were only five following the departure of Ursula Burns from Xerox. She was 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), which champions the development of black executives around the world, said 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 Fortune 500 companies could be on the verge of extinction 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.