I have a new compulsion. I find myself spending any free time I have Googling Ursula Burns, the new Xerox CEO. My fascination is two-fold: First, Xerox just acquired the company I work for, so I’m eager to learn all I can about her management style and vision. The second reason is that her life story and accomplishments are compelling. The more I learn, the more I want to know.
Ursula was named CEO of Xerox last July and has been with the company for 30 years. She started as an intern, having just acquired an undergraduate and master’s degree in mechanical engineering. She grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at a time that she describes as “…when it was really bad, when the gangs were there and the drug addicts were there.”
She is getting significantly more national press coverage than the typical newly minted head of a multinational company for a couple of reasons. She is the first female to succeed a female CEO of a company the size of Xerox and she is the first African-American woman to head a major American company.
Having scoured all of the coverage, I notice a few consistent themes about her personality and leadership style that contribute to her success. The first is that she is fearless. This theme resonated in Sunday’s New York Times article about her desire to redefine the Xerox culture. She speaks her mind and is encouraging her employees to do the same to help her not only sustain but grow the business: “I want us to stay civil and kind, but we have to be frank – the reason we can be frank is because we are all in the same family.”
On YouTube, I found a recorded discussion at Spellman College earlier this year in which Ursula participated on a panel about leadership. If fearlessness is her ying, then you could say her yang is patience. She spent a lot of time discussing the merits of individuals having the patience to master something well before moving on to other things.
She used the example of her son, a student at MIT, who wants to save the world through science before he’s 30. While she admires his tenacity and that of other young people, she also wants all of us to respect what is almost a law of process and learning – that it takes time to become a master. This Yoda-like quality fascinates me and I’m eager to see for myself how she manages the delicate balance of being fearless and patient at the same time.
One skill I’ve noticed through recent employee meetings, greeting all of us newbies to the Xerox family, is an authenticity that just might be the special ingredient that helps her find that balance. She isn’t afraid to speak candidly about the company’s priorities and, in addition, what will no longer be priorities.
She doesn’t shrink from tough questions about how acquiring the company I work for will result in some reorganization that will impact Xerox’s overall headcount – meaning a need to reduce it. Instead, she tackles the questions head on, explains the timelines for when those tough decisions will be made, and expresses her commitment to do so humanely and with compassion.
It is this transparency that I think helps Xerox be named to such lists as Fortune’s top most-admired company in the computer industry.
Another way Ursula stays grounded is that she does her own grocery shopping and laundry. She told the Times part of the reason is her desire to be a good role model to her children, but having learned more about her, I can’t help but think part of the reason is to make sure she stays real. And, she is careful to remember all of the attention she is receiving now isn’t all about her.
“The real story is not Ursula Burns,” she said. “I just happen to be the person standing up at this point representing Xerox.” But it is a fascinating story and I look forward to seeing how Xerox transforms in the coming years.
Michelle Hicks is a communications consultant with Buck Consultants. Contact her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.