Becoming a black CEO is like the kiss of death
The days are getting longer, and the butterflies will soon be returning home. They live from summer to summer. What a life. What we know as the butterfly, is the last stage in the insect’s life cycle — glamorous, colourful, but actually nearing death, after it has been a worm and a pupa.
It’s like the life of the black chief executive in South Africa.
The job is often glamorous, the press loves them; but it is invariably a kiss of death because our CEOs don’t last in their positions.
I did a short, unscientific survey, based largely on anecdotal evidence because the sample is too small to do a precise, scientific one.
This is South Africa, and the race issue will always find its way into the research results, just like sand in a desert laboratory.
The solution, therefore, must always deal with that layer of complexity instead of avoiding it.
If five years is the medium term, most black chief executives last no more than three years.
Let’s face it, a CEO who becomes a divisional manager at another company has effectively been demoted, unless they join a private equity firm as a partner, because then they have the money and networks to do big deals.
But it is not always the case with ours. Some become a sorry sight, begging for favours from people they once despised.
The brave ones leave to start their own businesses.
The failure does not lie with our CEOs, but with a system that sets people up for failure.
When a poorly constructed mall collapses, you can’t blame the victims for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The failure of our CEOs is at the beginning. Most recruitment agencies make their money only when they place the candidate, so they tend to up-sell the job to the candidate, and the candidate to the company.
“The company wants to really change,” they say, “and as a black person you’re better placed to do that.
“The company wants to do the right thing, and they also want to be seen to be doing the right thing.”
Meanwhile, they’re throwing the unsuspecting candidate into a pit of backstabbing vipers that hate their own company as well as their colleagues; men who are haunted by their worst fears where the colour of their skins has ceased to be their protection. They cannot be blamed because that is the world they used to know, after all, South Africa was created to be a place where skin colour determined success or failure.
Raised on the gospel of blessed are the meek, the black executive enters the fray, preaching a message of love, peace and kumbaya. But the boardroom is not the church. It is about the root of all evil, money. It requires bold decision makers, and people with the political wits to navigate the choppy waters of business.
Many CEOs around the world survive the boardroom because they have powerful supporters.
An outsider who has been headhunted to join a big group will always be like a butterfly trapped in a spider’s web or a network in which he or she has little influence.
So before joining the organisation ask the tough questions such as what your budget will be, because an executive without a budget is only an adviser and not a decision maker.
Remember you are not begging for the job, and you will survive much longer if they are hiring you for your skill, and not your skin.