Leadership lessons

Xerox CEO Burns tells MIT Sloan students, “You have to be authentic.”

Published: March 8, 2011

In the 1980s, Xerox Corp. Chairman and CEO Ursula Burns couldn’t have blended in if she wanted to. At the time there were “literally, virtually no women” engineers, Burns said at MIT Sloan last week. And there were just “no” black women engineers.

So it’s a good thing, then, that Burns found a company that encouraged her to be herself.

Burns

“Never did they say ‘It’s really important that you fit in,’” Burns said in a talk for the Dean’s Innovative Leader Series. “The thing that was great was that I was able to morph myself into a place that was comfortable.”

As a black woman, Burns—who will provide the commencement address at MIT in June—stood out immediately when she joined Xerox in 1980 in Rochester, N.Y., as a mechanical engineering intern. One of three children born to a poor single mother living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Burns was a city girl. And once in Rochester, she took to working alone in her office with the door closed. It was only later that she met her husband, a chemist at Xerox, and ascended, step-by-step, to become the first black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. That was in 2009.

“By entering Xerox as an engineer, I was able to learn the company from the smallest embodiment of the company all the way up through,” Burns said. She advised students to work hard (“because the people paying you deserve it”) and learn their companies inside out. She also cautioned against job-hopping, saying the personal investment in a company would be valuable and rewarded.

Burns periodically mentioned her mentor—attorney, activist, and Xerox board member Vernon Jordan. She called him as a constant personal cheerleader, one who convinced her to stay at the company when she nearly left to work at Dell in 2000. Jordan, she said, was a major influence on her ability to form her own leadership style at Xerox.

“If you don’t check yourself early, you’ll become these ugly people, these ugly leaders who think they have so much,” Burns said.

“You have to be authentic. You have to try to figure out your space and be in your space.”