Why We Won't See More Black CEOs Anytime Soon

Last Updated Nov 10, 2008 9:21 AM EST

Now that the United States has elected its first African-American president, will companies start hiring more people of color to run their organizations?

Not anytime soon, says Harvard Business Review editor Diane Coutu in a thought-provoking post, Does Obama's Win Extend to Business?

"His gains won't be replicated in the C-suite until there's some real shift in the culture of business," she says.
Citing academic research, Coutu explores four factors that slow the progress of black executives toward the corner office:
  • Competing Careers Until recently, minority up-and-comers were more attracted to careers in medicine and law than business.
  • Mirror Image Psychologists tell us corporate power brokers tend to promote people who look like themselves (i.e. white men).
  • Low Expectations White bosses can have lower expectations of black talent than white talent, leading to slower promotions.
  • Feedback Failures Because of oversensitivity and and fear of being discriminatory, feedback given by managers to African-American executives, especially at the start of their careers, is more cautious, less direct, and slows down the development process.
"However huge the symbolic value of Obama's election for America," Coutu writes, "African-Americans will still have to bear a disproportionate share of the burden for managing their careers and for holding companies accountable with regard to diversity. That's not going to change anytime soon."

The Business Case
In addition to aspirations of social equality, there is a much more pragmatic reason to promote racial diversity in organizations, according to research done at Harvard Business School: it pays off on the bottom line.

HBS Researchers Robin Ely and David Thomas found that racially diverse work groups are more productive when they choose to learn from members' different experiences, rather than ignore or suppress them.

Your opinion please. The United States can be justifiably proud to have broken the racial barrier in the White House. Do you think there is a similar barrier to be eclipsed in Corporate America? How do we go about that?

Professor Thomas believes one concrete action companies can take is to provide upper-management mentors and sponsors for minority executives. What are some other ideas?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.