Lessons from Ursula Burns – Chairwoman and CEO of Xerox

In 2010, Ursula Burns made over 13 million dollars according to the Rochester Business Journal. She has been appointed by the President to to help lead STEM, a national program to better educate students in science, technology, engineering, and math and to be vice chairwoman of the President’s Export Council.

She was the first black, female CEO of a Fortune 500 company when she took the reins of Xerox in 2009 and she was raised in the projects in New York City (The Baruch Houses on the Lower East Side) by a single mom.

How did she come so far? What can we learn from her travels?  Here are some lessons from Ursula Burns.

Soak Up Your Parent’s Values.

Olga – Ursula’s mother, raised three children alone.  She was a pragmatic and focused parent. To support her family when they lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan — it was really bad, there were gangs and drug addicts there – her Mom ironed shirts for a doctor who lived down the street as well as cleaning his office and watching other children. She would also barter for things the family needed.

Her Mother had clear expectations and let the 3 kids know in no uncertain terms what they were. Some of her sayings were:

  • “Where you are is not who you are.”
  • “Don’t act like you’re from the gutter because you live in a place that’s really close to the gutter.”
  • “Be good people.”
  • “Be successful – You have to give more than you take away from the world. ”
  • “You have to learn and you have to be curious.”
  • “You have to perform at your best.”
  • “ You have to worry about the things you can control.”
  • “Don’t become a victim.”

Ursula and her brother’s soaked up these values and put them to work.

Leverage Your Strengths.
Ursula went to an all girls catholic school where she showed great strength in science and math. The Sisters advised her to get a degree in education when it was time for college, but Ms. Burns had other thoughts.

According to a Forbes article, she went to the library and looked up math and science related careers to see which ones paid the most. She settled on becoming a chemical engineer since it was the number one income generater, but later decided to switch to the number two, mechanical engineering.

She not only got a BS in mechanical engineering, but also went on to get a Masters in it. She sought and landed an internship while in college – with Xerox.

She leveraged her strengths in math and science.

Work Hard.
She was hired on permanently at Xerox after completing college and became familiar with the company.  For about a decade, she learned the ropes at Xerox in product development and planning, which lead to leadership roles in the 90’s.

She paved the way for future success by digging in and working hard – starting in her early years at Xerox.

Be Observant and Speak Up.
In 1989, at a work-life committee meeting chaired by a senior executive, she was surprised when the exec addressed a question about whether hiring for diversity was lowering standards.

After the meeting she went and asked him why he gave the question credence by answering it. Because of that, the executive called her in a week later. She was afraid he would fire her, but instead he told her he wanted to meet regularly with her!

He later said (for a New Your Times article) that he thought “she was enormously curious. She wanted to know why we were doing some things at the time, and she was always prepared in a way that I thought was very refreshing.”

Later that led to her becoming his assistant – a position used to groom future leaders of the company.

She continued to speak her mind. The president of the company, Paul A. Allaire held monthly upper management meetings, and she and other assistants were invited to sit in (but off to the side).  According to Adam Bryant in that New YorkTimes article:

“Ms. Burns noticed a pattern. Mr. Allaire would announce, “We have to stop hiring.” But then the company would hire 1,000 people. The next month, same thing. So she raised her hand. “I’m a little confused, Mr. Allaire,” she said. “If you keep saying, ‘No hiring,’ and we hire 1,000 people every month, who can say ‘No hiring’ and make it actually happen?”

“She remembers that he stared at her with a “Why did you ask that question?” look and then the meeting moved on. Later, the phone rang. Mr. Allaire wanted to see her in his office. She figured that it was not good news. But Mr. Allaire wanted to poach her from Mr. Hicks, so she could be his executive assistant. “

She took note of things at the company that did not make sense and questioned them. She spoke up to people who could make a difference.

Learn From Mentors.

Ms. Burns had multiple mentors on her rise to the top, starting with her Mom (who didn’t survive to see her get there). From them she learned many lessons, such as:

  • You need to manage people in different ways, don’t intimidate them, do make them feel comfortable by listening carefully.
  • You can be more effective by doing things like giving people credit for ideas that they didn’t have, but you sold to them, to give them ownership.
  • Don’t show all of your emotions because people will watch your face for everything if you make it to the top of the organization.
  • Develop some polish, patience and perspective.

Some of the advice, she decided to ignore, because it didn’t make sense to her:

  • She was advised to ‘not let the employees see you sweat’ but she thought that they have to see you sweat because she can’t be considered the answer to every problem.
  • She was mentored to adjust her speaking style – which was quick, informal and blunt “too New York”, but she feels that she needs to make sure that her speeches sound like her.

Now that she is a CEO, she dishes out advice too.

  • She talks about being fearless, but says that can’t mean being reckless. She feels that is something she needs to work on.
  • She wants her employees to decide and do things, not bring everything up to the next level for action.
  • When people ask her for new opportunities, she wants them to stay in the old position long enough to give back to the company what it gave you while you were in the position.

She found and learned from multiple mentors, but she didn’t blindly follow all of their advice.

Don’t Be Overwhelmed by Riches.She hasn’t moved out of Rochester, she still does her own grocery shopping, she does her own laundry and drives herself to work and home.

Even though she has a multi-million dollar compensation package, she hasn’t let the money change her values.

I love these rags to riches stories and am in awe of Ursula Burn’s accomplishments!  Do you agree with these lessons from Ms. Burns?

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