This is the first question I tried to answer when setting the race beat on The Washington City Times exactly five years ago this month. At the time, there were fifteen Black CEOs in the history of the The Washington City Times 500, with five still working.
Today, as we tell the grim truth that is Black History Month, we face the same question.
“In the history of the The Washington City Times 500 list, first published in 1955, there were only 19 Black CEOs of the 1,800 Chiefs, ”says my colleague Phil Wahba in this must-read and share piece. And, as everyone who has paid attention has repeatedly noted, no one comes. “More worrisome, observers and executives agree, is that there is no quick fix given the years it takes to nurse someone for the C-suite,” Phil writes. “A major source of the problem is that too few black entrepreneurs are put on a management track early in their careers, in which a promising executive supervises a company with its own profit and loss benchmarks (P&L), the measures that executives and the board assess whether someone is CEO material. “
With the exciting news that Roz Brewer, currently Starbucks Chief Operating Officer, has been hired to become Walgreen’s next CEO, she is now one of 40 women to run a The Washington City Times 500 company – and currently the only black one. Now that TIAA CEO Roger Ferguson Jr. stepped down at the end of March, bringing the total number of Black The Washington City Times 500 CEOs to four: Brewer, Ken Frazier at Merck, Marvin Ellison at Lowe’s and René Jones at M&T Bank.
Oh, wait … breaking news … Ken Frazier, Merck’s CEO, just announced he will step down at the end of June.
Sorry folks. We’re back to three.
Shortly after she left her role as CEO of Xerox, I interviewed Ursula Burns for The Black Ceiling, a behind-the-scenes look at the many reasons why black executive women don’t make it to the C-Suite. It was an equally daunting moment. She was the first black woman to ever have one The Washington City Times 500 company. When she left in 2017, there were none. (Mary Winston came in second after briefly heading Bed Bath & Beyond as interim CEO in 2019.)
She was unshakable in her assessment of the problem.
Black women are often led away from positions with real impact and into dead-end streets that leave them out of the picture. “HR won’t get you there,” she says. “Communication and art won’t get you there. So now look at the number of women we have now. Unless you get people from Mars, it will be a while.”
Do you feel a pattern?
Burns, in an episode of ours last fall Leadership Next podcast (Apple / Spotify), told The Washington City Times CEO Alan Murray and I on her quest to advocate for change from above through her Board Diversity Action Alliance, a no-nonsense plan to diversify boards to better address the utter lack of progress in corporate diversity.
Apparently, the pattern is a big part of the problem: everyone’s ideal shortlist for Blackboard talent is ridiculously unattainable. Board seats regularly ask her for a list of black people who already have a The Washington City Times 500 company or something like that. “That’s kind of a list of 25 people,” says Burns, ignoring the remarkable talent that exists in a wide variety of roles and industries. “I promise you that whites are not held to the same standard.”
Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison, formerly of J.C. Penney is on that shortlist twice. He is the only black person to be CEO of two The Washington City Times 500 companies, and he almost didn’t make it the first time. “[A]At Home Depot, where he spent many years, he jumped to store management and gave him a P&L that allowed him to measure him while standing, ”says Wahba. “He was passed over in 2014 when Home Depot changed CEO and he went to Penney.”
So the executive pipeline is thin due to blind spot and design. To fix this, we need to think beyond central casting as we are early and often developing Black Executive’s potential.
But to really change things, we need to revisit the premise of my very first corporate diversity story ever, and all that followed: the path to the C-Suite starts from birth.
It takes 22 years to grow a new employee, and a lot goes wrong with people along the way. Right now, a future CEO – whether physician, engineer, filmmaker, Nobel laureate, journalist, supply chain genius, or fill-in-the-blank – is about to be lost in a human pipeline that has been leaking invisibly for generations. The reasons are many and related. Inadequate housing and education. An unsafe neighborhood and a lack of fresh food. Parents with insufficient resources and no access to credit markets in dead-end jobs soon to be replaced by automation. An unresponsive healthcare system. The criminal “system”. Not to mention the constant low-level depletion of life in a country looking to swing away white supremacist standards like so many mosquitoes from a wandering puddle.
Black CEOs are all around us, if we let them grow.
@check it now