Blacks in Leadership: Harder Than It Should Have Been

More than half of Black executives say they had to take much bigger risks than other leaders had to in order to advance. The Black P&L Leader is an exclusive Korn Ferry study.



The killing of an unarmed Black man by a White police officer has focused the world's attention on how many institutions, both public and private, often work against people of color. In its report from late 2019, Korn Ferry highlighted just how much more work and risk it took top Black executives to reach the same level as their colleagues.

They now oversee thousands of employees and billions of dollars of revenue at the nation’s largest corporations.

But in the quiet moments, many of today’s top Black corporate leaders feel that making it was a lot more difficult for them than it would have been for others.

Indeed, according to new Korn Ferry research, nearly 60% of the Black executives who oversee major lines of business at Fortune 500 companies felt they had to work twice as hard—and accomplish twice as much—to be seen on the same level as their colleagues. At the same time, more than a third of the leaders said they were assigned extremely tough projects that no one else wanted to handle. “These leaders felt like they had to prove themselves in ways that they perceived their colleagues didn’t have to,” says Mike Hyter, a managing partner in Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO practice, and a project leader on the firm’s new report, The Black P&L Leader.

For the research, which was sponsored by the Executive Leadership Council, Korn Ferry conducted extensive interviews with 28 Black executives who were either responsible for a significant P&L operation or the entire business itself. About 30% of the executives were women.

The survey comes as corporations continue to struggle with diversifying their leadership roles. Less than 10% of the Fortune 500’s successful P&L leaders are Black, and only four Fortune 500 CEOs are Black. About 14% of the US population is black.

The executives, as a group, felt that there were significant headwinds to their career advancement. About half the leaders talked explicitly about confronting unfair treatment and microaggressions (subtle or unconscious behavior that expresses prejudice or bias). The most common experience: business partners or clients assumed the Black leader was the direct report of a White colleague, when it was the other way around. “You have to recognize that unconscious bias is real and it is at play, but you can’t allow it to affect you,” one leader told the researchers. There are lingering perceptions that Black professionals are less intellectually or analytically strong when compared to non-Blacks, Hyter says.

Success in early assignments didn’t change that perception, either. In the study, 57% of the Black executives said they had to repeatedly perform well in tough assignments before they could climb the corporate ladder. Many of their coworkers, on the other hand, seemed to be judged on potential and given opportunities based on that perceived potential (a similar pattern also found in Korn Ferry’s Women CEOs Speak study).

Treating Black employees in the same manner as everyone else isn’t enough, however, the report’s authors say. Organizations have to actively develop Black talent, creating opportunities for high-potential employees to move across functions and lines of business. “Companies have to be more intentional about this because there are headwinds that are getting in the way,” says JT Saunders, a project leader on the study and a senior consultant with Korn Ferry’s Diversity and Inclusion practice.

Getting assignments that directly impact P&L is tantamount, Hyter says. The corporate world, he says, tends to push Black leaders into support roles that, while paying well, do not have the responsibility of running the business itself. “Put people in P&L positions early and you will improve your inventory for CEOs. It’s overly simplistic, but it’s not done at the level of frequency as it should be,” Hyter says.

Importantly, firms need to connect high-potential black talent with sponsors to help navigate the rungs of the corporate ladder. Nearly 86% of the Black leaders said having a sponsor was indispensable to their careers. Their sponsors opened doors and provided exposure, which helped move the Black executives into bigger positions and advance their careers. Those sponsors also promoted Black executives—or advocated for promoting them—which granted the executives access to opportunities and critical relationships they may not have gotten otherwise.

Download the Report