Where Are the Black CEOs?

As Black History Month begins, experts say the goal of placing Black leaders in the corner office remains a “55-year underachievement.” A checklist to help firms refocus.

They often take bigger career risks than their peers. They are usually more qualified. But they don’t have roles running the country’s largest organizations.

As the nation celebrates Black History Month, many companies have made major commitments to add more Black talent, buy more from Black-owned businesses, and build more inclusive organizations. But the biggest prize, and what many say is most important, remains elusive: roles in the C-suite. “Black CEO attainment at Fortune 500 firms has been a 55-year underachievement exercise,” says Michael Hyter, Korn Ferry’s chief diversity officer.

It’s why the recent announcement that Rosalind Brewer will become CEO of the pharmacy giant Walgreens Boots Alliance made such an impression. She will become one of only five current CEOs in the Fortune 500 who are Black, and only the second Black woman to ever hold a top spot at one of those select firms. There have been only 19 Black CEOs in the history of the Fortune 500.

Brewer’s own career development is something that experts say not enough Black professionals get to experience. She started as a chemist and spent more than 20 years taking on roles with increased responsibilities. She moved on to become the president and CEO of Sam’s Club, the warehouse store division of Walmart, and then was chief operating officer at Starbucks before being tapped by Walgreens. Brewer’s employers spent time and resources developing her potential, Hyter says.

Developing Black talent is just one project organizations need to accomplish to build more inclusive organizations, experts say. Another challenge is removing biases, intentional or otherwise, that impede the development of Black executives. In 2019, when Korn Ferry talked to dozens of Black P&L leaders, about half of them talked explicitly about confronting unfair treatment and microaggressions, subtle or unconscious behaviors that express 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.

A majority 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.

To be sure, Black executives have made inroads toward large roles, with an influx of leaders reaching levels such as chief human resources officer or chief legal officer. But there’s still a dearth of Black leaders in roles that are often seen as stepping-stones to the CEO job. Less than 10% of the Fortune 500’s successful P&L leaders are Black. (About 14% of the US population is Black.) “We need more people who are running the business, where the buck stops with them, and where you have no diversity,” says Ayana Parsons, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who helps place CEOs and other executive roles at firms across multiple industries.

Experts say firms also need to connect high-potential Black talent with sponsors to help navigate the rungs of the corporate ladder. Sponsors open doors and provide exposure, which can help move Black executives into bigger positions and advance their careers. That sponsorship, and every other push to make firms more inclusive, has to come from the very top of organizations: CEOs and boards, experts say. “Organizations need to be more savvy about who gets on their succession bench,” says JT Saunders, a senior consultant with Korn Ferry’s Diversity and Inclusion practice.

This is all why, in Hyter’s mind, the focus on Black History Month shouldn’t just be about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King and the poems of Maya Angelou. “The biggest contribution to the Black experience is having more people who are Black making a considerable difference in C-suite.”