Ursula Burns Discusses Impatience and Leadership at Catalyst Awards Luncheon

ursulaburnsBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

At last week’s Catalyst Awards Conference, lunch keynote Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox, shared her experience and advice on leadership and more. “I lucked out,” she began. “Xerox is a company that fit me well. It allowed to relax into my own self.”

Having begun her career as an engineer, Burns climbed the corporate ranks all the way to the top, becoming the first Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company in 2009. “There was an unbelievable roar and uproar about that,” she recalled. “But the board expected that, and I expected it, and our PR people expected it and prepared me for it.”

But what surprised Burns and the rest of Xerox was the conversation about her transition – how she was appointed CEO by another woman, Anne Mulcahy. “The two together really took on an entire conversation. Anne and I refused to do an interview together at first. The only time we did it was at the Fortune Most Powerful Woman conference. We stayed away from that conversation.”

In fact, she continued, all the media hubbub was discomfiting for her initially. “I found out people liked me, respected me, thought I was smart – without ever knowing me. I became the most smart, most famous, most beautiful person… but at that point I hadn’t even done anything!”

Now, almost four years into her job, she’s easing into the public eye as she’s shown her skill as a CEO. “Now it’s more normal to [position] me as a leader,” she explained, “not having the spotlight on me as an oddity.”

Throughout her talk with Catalyst CEO Ilene Lang, Burns discussed her career path, joking about her reputation as a notoriously impatient person and sharing her advice on speaking up and leadership.

Impatience and Speaking Up

“We’ve coined a phrase at Xerox,” Burns said, “that ‘impatience is a virtue.’”

“But you can’t be impatient about everything,” she continued. In her time as head of the company, she’s learned to choose her battles, something she learned from Mulcahy. “She said you have to moderate your voice so people can pick out the important things. You have to understand when it’s important to speak.”

“I had to learn to kind of shut up,” she said with a laugh. “Not all of the things that are happening are important to me. I have calmed down about the areas that are not that important.”

One area where she has not calmed down is when people don’t speak up on matters where their expertise can be valuable. This was a point she reiterated later on when sharing her advice for young women in the professional space. “If you’re sitting around the table but you say nothing, that’s a lost opportunity.”

While may people may be intimidated at first, she continued, “Move beyond that and say something about what you have to offer. The reason you’re there is because you have something valuable that can be added.”

Chief Story Teller

As CEO, Burns said, one of her key jobs is to be her company’s chief story teller. “Getting people to follow you is all about belief. The way to get people to follow you is to tell them a story that they’re in, that looks good.”

She explained, “One of the things my mother told me is that history matters. …People’s memory – that matters. One of the biggest challenges we have in our transformation is that memory [at Xerox] is a very strong, very deep, and very long institutional memory. And that memory opens up opportunities, but if it’s not tuned correctly it closes down a whole lot of opportunities.”

As Burns continues to lead Xerox further into the world of business to business services, instead of focusing solely on copiers, she has had to tread carefully – some people have been concerned that moving away from the copier business could mean destroying or disrespecting that memory. She continued, “We have to be prepared to recognize our history, but not depend on it for our future.”

She continued, “What I had to do was tell a story. Anne used to tell me this all the time. …Story-telling is a big deal and I’ve become chief story teller at the company. I’ve become better at trying to give context and clear words about our future.”