Crossroads

At the intersection of technology, finance and the Pacific Rim.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

This is a lesson about attitude. Ursula Burns recently became CEO of Xerox Corp., a former blue chip company that due to technological change, had become a turn-around story. They are in the middle of the story today--outcome not clear yet. She is unique in that she is the first black woman to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company in the US. So what does it take to stand up and walk to the top of the hill? What set her apart for this highly coveted position? The NY Times did a recent article on her in their Sunday business edition. Some key points are in bold:

In 1989, she was invited to a work-life discussion. Diversity initiatives came up, and somebody asked whether such initiatives lowered hiring standards. Wayland Hicks, a senior Xerox executive running the meeting, patiently explained that that was not true.

“I was stunned,” Ms. Burns recalls. “I actually told him, ‘I was surprised that you gave this assertion any credence.’ “ After the meeting, she revisited the issue with Mr. Hicks, and a few weeks later he asked her to meet with him in his office. She figured that she was about to be reprimanded or fired.

Instead, Mr. Hicks told her she had been right to be concerned but also wrong for handling it so forcefully. Then he told her he wanted to meet regularly with her.

“She was enormously curious,” Mr. Hicks remembers. “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.”

He offered her a job as his executive assistant. It was January 1990, she was 31, and the offer felt like a dead-end. “Why would I ever want to do that?” she answered, assuming that the title meant secretary. The job was much more, of course. She would travel with Mr. Hicks, sit in on important meetings, help get things done.

She accepted, and, Mr. Hicks remembers, they talked a lot about leadership. Mr. Hicks, a vice president overseeing marketing and customer operations, explained the need to manage people in different ways, not to intimidate them, and to make them feel comfortable by listening carefully.

As she absorbed some of these lessons, Ms. Burns continued to speak her mind inside Xerox — particularly on an occasion in mid-1991 when the stakes were unusually high. At the time, Paul A. Allaire, Xerox’s president, held monthly meetings with top managers, and Ms. Burns and other assistants were invited to sit in (but off to the side).

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.

So where did this attitude come from? She answers:

“150 percent my mother. My mother was pragmatic, focused and extremely, exceedingly practical, and she was the ultimate self-determining person.”

Her family (her father was never in her life) lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan — “when it was really bad, when the gangs were there and the drug addicts were there.”

Her mother made ends meet by looking after other children. She also ironed shirts for a doctor who lived down the street and cleaned his office, bartering for things like medicine and even cleaning supplies. She had many sayings — and she repeated them, often in blunt terms, over and over.

“Where you are is not who you are,” she would tell Ms. Burns and her brother and sister. “Don’t act like you’re from the gutter because you live in a place that’s really close to the gutter.”

“She was very, very black-and-white and very clear about what responsibilities we had,” Ms. Burns recalls. “One was that we had to be good people. And the second thing is that we had to be successful. And so her words for success were, ‘You have to give’ — and she would say this all the time — ‘more than you take away from the world.’ ”

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