The number of African-American chief executives among the largest U.S. public companies — already a tiny group — decreased by one this week when American Express announced the retirement of its longtime CEO, Kenneth I. Chenault.
When he leaves the credit-card issuer’s corner office on Feb. 1, only two black chief executives will remain at the helm of companies in the S&P 500 index. The total has fallen in recent years despite a steady drumbeat of attention to the need for more diversity in corporate America.
One of the two remaining CEOs in that index is Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, who gained recent attention for being first among a wave of corporate chiefs to depart President Donald Trump’s advisory panel after Trump’s remarks in August about protests in Charlottesville, Va.
The other black CEO, according to the Executive Leadership Council, an organization focused on African-American leaders, is Arnold Donald, chief executive of Carnival Cruise Lines. (The S&P list counts 503 chief executives because a few companies have co-CEOs.)
Meanwhile, the Fortune 500 list, which ranks companies by revenue, now includes just three: Frazier, J.C. Penney CEO Marvin Ellison, and Roger Ferguson Jr., who leads the money manager TIAA.
Chenault, whom major American Express shareholder Warren Buffett called “the gold standard for corporate leadership,” had a 16-year run atop the credit-card issuer, navigating the aftermath of Sept. 11, the financial crisis and a recent turnaround effort.
Though the company has faced hurdles in recent years as competitors picked off customers, he was known for expanding the company’s customer base and being a mentor to other leaders.
The smaller number of black CEOs comes at a time when diversity has been a hot topic in corporate America, with companies talking more about adding women to leadership roles and improving the number of minorities and women in engineering and technology jobs. But some worry the heavy focus on those issues — while important — could be crowding out broader discussions about the makeup of the executive suite.
“Teams that are more diverse racially actually make more money too,” said Lawrence Jones, a partner at the leadership consultancy RHR International. “The financial arguments are there, but people aren’t paying attention.”
Jones cited several reasons why progress may have slowed, from systemic problems of education and inequality to the relationship-building challenges that black managers face in workplaces that aren’t inclusive and predominantly white.
“Black culture and white culture are different,” making it less appealing for black executives to engage in after-work activities where many relationships are built,” Jones said.