CEOs lamenting diversity pipeline is a ‘cop-out,’ former Amex chief says

Corporate heads shouldn’t blame a limited pool of talent on their inability to promote and hire Black executives, said Kenneth Chenault, the former longtime chief executive of American Express.

Despite many companies making pledges to increase the diversity of their top ranks, some executives, including Wells Fargo’s Charlie Scharf, have landed in hot water in recent months after making comments that they have struggled to find experienced Black executives.

Kenneth Chenault

Bloomberg News

“Well, how long have you been in charge?” Chenault said at an Economic Club of New York event, without identifying any specific company or executive. “Because you’re the one who controls what’s put into the pipeline. The reality is that, again, if you simply take the position that the status quo approach and processes are the ones that you’re going to follow, then you’re not going to make progress.”

When Chenault was named head of American Express in 2001, he became only the fourth Black CEO of a Fortune 500 company. He’s now chairman and a managing director at the venture capital firm General Catalyst.

Since departing the card giant in 2018, Chenault has advised many company chiefs on their strategies for diversity and inclusion, he said. Chenault said he tells companies to identify and promote a handful of Black executives to key positions, a strategy he says usually results in more diversity in lower ranks over time.

While “it’s a cop-out” to blame the pipeline, there are “some areas where there are issues of supply,” Chenault said. “But I think there are many areas where clearly the talent is there. In some areas, getting a few diverse people in position, what you see over time is that leads to an increase more broadly in diversity across the company.”


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