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Going up? If you’re Kenneth I. Chenault, the answer is an absolute yes. Currently the president and chief operating officer of American Express Co., Chenault was officially designated CEO, the next ascendant to the Amex throne, by its current chairman and CEO, Harvey Golub, in April. Although not unexpected, the timing and the announcement couldn’t have sent a clearer message: an African American will be heading up a Fortune 100 company-No. 72 with $19.1 billion in revenue for 1998-just after the turn of the century.
“His performance as president, and his performance over time, have clearly demonstrated that Ken is the best next person to lead the company,” said Golub in a teleconference interview at the time of the announcement. In 1997, when Chenault was named president and COO, Golub had said he would step down from his post as CEO in 2004. But he says that timetable was accelerated when the board of directors reached the conclusion that Chenault would be the next CEO. “Customers, partners, competitors and colleagues will all know that when they deal with Ken, they are dealing with the next CEO of the company,” said Golub.
Chenault, 47, joined American Express in 1981 as director of strategic planning after a two-year stint as a management consultant at Bain & Co. His ascent has been focused, sure and steady. In 1989, he was named president of the Consumer Card Group, American Express’ credit card unit and prime focus. In 1993, he was made president of its Travel Related Services division in the U.S. and, in 1995, vice chairman of the company (see “Someone’s Knocking at the Door,” May 1997).
“It demonstrates that when companies focus on the capabilities that people bring to an organization, then race and gender are no longer an issue,” says Paula Banks, president of the Executive Leadership Council, a Washington, D.C.-based national networking organization representing 170 senior-level African American professionals in corporate America. Banks is also president of the BP/Amoco Foundation in Chicago.
Chenault points to his knack for affecting the way business is done within the organization as the key that opened the door to the executive suite. “I try to take a broad view and think in some original ways about where the business is going,” says Chenault. “If you think only in a step-by-step process, you don’t change the game at all. As a leader, you must change the way you think about and do business.”