Life Atop The Crystal Stair

Rising to the executive suite may seem lofty. These top decision makers tell what price they have to pay for success.

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Some say the route to the upper climes of corporate America is along a crystal stair — a path filled with bountiful salaries chauffeured cars and other lavish appointments. But missing from this fairy tale are the jagged edges beneath the beautiful, multifaceted facade. And for all its inviting color, reflection and abundance of light, there is very little heat. But for African Americans, there is often no wizard, Prince Charming or fairy godmother to help ease the way. It can be a lonely, cold ascent taken by an African American executive, who inevitably may by stopped at the glass ceiling.

For the few who have made it, their greatest challenge, they say, has been making their organizations acknowledge the value of their skills and contributions. The pioneering African Americans who integrated corporate America during the ’70s did so by working hard and not wearing their race on their sleeve. Nonetheless, for many of them the turned cheek was met with slaps to their intelligence and authority, underscored by a struggle for pay parity with their white counterparts.

For the next generation of black executives to succeed in the midst of this anti-affirmative action zeitgeist, they must understand that justifying their worth will be the norm. And a steady flow of black talent into the corporate pipeline will be the exception, unless a “lift-as-we-climb” attitude is embraced by businesses and those black executives already there.

As these first generation black corporate executives reach the 20-year pinnacle of their careers, a mounting body of evidence has surfaced proving that while some strides have been made, black executives have essentially been limited by their race. In 1996, the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission found that African Americans hold fewer than 5% of executive, administrative and managerial jobs in all private sector industries, and only 0.6% of senior executive slots.

Those executives who have moved steadily up the ladder within America’s largest corporations have gained increased compensation, influence and status, pushing the “glass ceiling” ever higher. While many of the positions bestowed on them were disproportionately in affirmative action, personnel and public, urban and community affairs — a select few broke through to land positions in finance, sales and marketing. Yet, while ultimate power is still wielded by the “old boy network,” senior black managers — through performance and their sheer presence — continue to help redefine the paradigms of corporate culture.

No executive has probably done more to change corporate thinking than Darwin N. Davis Sr. Over the past 32 years, the senior vice president at The Equitable Life Assurance Society in New York has been a stalwart at bringing the virtues of the African American client and employee to the corporate fore. “I have never hesitated in bringing the black perspective to the table and the company expects that from me,” says Davis, 65, who will retire this July. “I didn’t start out intending to do that, but as a black executive, I was thrust into that role. It wasn’t always comfortable, but it was necessary.”

Those executives with

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