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INVISIBLE IN THE EXECUTIVE SUITE

In An American Dilemma, his classic 1944 study of race relations in the U.S., sociologist Gunnar Myrdal revealed the plight of aspiring black ''managers of industry'' who ''have to work in the white economy which does not want Negroes in such positions.''

Half a century later, African Americans have gained scattered footholds in Corporate America--but the corner office remains an exclusively white preserve. And executives of Kenneth Chenault's stature, with the clout and connections to take on big-time CEO jobs soon, remain very much the exception.

True, Franklin D. Raines will become Fannie Mae's CEO on Jan. 1 after two years at the Office of Management & Budget. Richard D. Nanula, who left a soaring career at Walt Disney Co. to join Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., is prime CEO timber. Lloyd Ward is expected to land the CEO job at Maytag Corp. next summer.

NEAR MISSES. Beyond that intimate fraternity, though, there's a stark void. The federal Glass Ceiling Commission reported in a 1995 study that blacks held just 0.6% of senior executive posts. Membership of the Executive Leadership Council, composed of big-company black managers within three reporting levels of the CEO, has boomed in the 12 years since its founding--but only to a total of 193. Black representation on corporate boards, the council says, has expanded modestly, but not on key committees.

In the past decade, moreover, CEO hopefuls such as McDonald's Robert M. Beavers Jr., Corning's Hayward R. Gipson Jr., and Montgomery Ward's Roland C. Baker have, one by one, faded. On Nov. 14, A. Barry Rand, a highly regarded executive vice-president, announced he would leave Xerox Corp., having made clear his disenchantment when the company hired IBM marketer G. Richard Thoman last year as Paul A. Allaire's heir apparent.

Why are the ranks still so thin at the top? Some advocates argue that the old white boy's club isn't yet comfortable enough with minorities to include them in critical mentoring relationships. ''The pipelines to promote African Americans are not in place,'' says Ella L.J. Edmondson Bell, professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Explicit racial bias likely impedes progress, too. More than half of senior minority executives surveyed by recruiter Korn/Ferry International and Columbia Business School reported observing ''a double standard in the delegation of assignments'' or ''harsh or unfair treatment of minorities by whites.''

Still, there is cause for hope. The number of black college graduates and MBAs has swelled over the past two decades, and increasingly vigorous networks ''offer tremendous opportunities for insight and advancement,'' says Curtis J. Crawford, who left a senior post at Lucent Technologies Inc. last year to take charge at chipmaker Zilog Inc. David Thomas, a professor at Harvard business school, argues that compared with their predecessors, today's top black managers are more often in core operating roles and so on a true ''CEO trajectory.''

Yet in most industries, blacks remain invisible. That's business' loss. ''There is a wealth of capability and experience that is not being utilized to its fullest in Corporate America,'' says Adriane M. Brown, 40, who was promoted on Dec. 3 to run Corning Inc.'s $400 million environmental products division. ''I still look for a day when you will not consider [my promotion] a news story.''

By Keith H. Hammonds in New York, with bureau reports



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Updated Dec. 10, 1998 by bwwebmaster
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