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Global Perspectives: Ursula Burns on coaching, diversity and advancing the next generation of female leaders

Mark A. Wynne

Ursula Burns served as chairman of Xerox Corp. from 2010 to 2017. She joined the company as an intern in 1980 and held various leadership posts spanning corporate services, manufacturing and product development. She became president in 2007 and chief executive officer in 2009—the first black woman to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

As CEO, she helped the company transform from a global leader in document technology to a diversified business services company. Early in her tenure, she led the largest acquisition in Xerox’s history, the $6.4 billion purchase of Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services. Burns subsequently led Xerox through a successful separation into two independent publicly traded companies—Xerox Corp., the company’s document technology and document outsourcing businesses, and Conduent Inc., a business process services company.

Burns was named chairwoman of Teneo Holdings in July 2021. She has regularly appeared on Fortune’s and Forbes’ lists of the world’s most powerful women as a member of the boards of ExxonMobil, Nestle and Uber. President Obama appointed her to help lead the White House national program on science, technology, engineering and math from 2009 to 2016. Burns chaired the President’s Export Council from 2015 to 2016 after serving as its vice chair from 2010 to 2015.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas recently hosted Burns as part of the Bank’s Global Perspectives speaker series. This series was launched at the beginning of 2016 with the objective of bringing leaders from the worlds of business, academia and policymaking to the Dallas Fed to share their insights on leadership, and global, national and regional developments.

Burns and Dallas Fed President Rob Kaplan discussed her career, the importance of coaches and mentors, the case for quotas and advice for the next generation of female leaders. The following are excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity, and presented by topic.

On getting her start:

Burns: I would call myself accidental to everything. I was the accidental engineer for sure and definitely the accidental business executive. I started in engineering without knowing what the heck engineering was. I went to an all-girl Catholic high school [Cathedral High School] in New York City.

It was just an amazing thing, a traditional Catholic all-girl education, emphasizing order, discipline, writing, reading, arithmetic. I turned out to be very good at math by the standards of my high school. But by the standards of the competitive open world, I was an average to below-average student. We just didn’t have a lot of advanced classes.

When I was a senior in high school, I went to a guidance counselor, who was a nun, and she told me, “You have a really good support system here, and you can do one of three things. You could be a nun, you could be a nurse or you could be a teacher.” By the way, in her vernacular and in her emphasis to me, these were great choices.

Being a nun was not optimal for me. But being a teacher or a nurse, well, that’s not a bad thing. My mother was poor. We grew up in a really poor neighborhood, and I realized that for both of those career options, [given] the salary levels, I would not have been able to do anything to advance our family.

So I went to the library and looked at this book called Barron’s. It tells you what the most competitive college is, what’s the average salary, starting salary after four years of college for a certain degree. The highest [starting salary] when I graduated, which was 1976, was in chemical engineering. I said, “That’s it: I’m going to become a chemical engineer.” So that’s how I became an engineer. I literally didn’t know a damn thing [about] what engineers did, didn’t know a lot about chemistry and damn sure didn’t know what a chemical engineer did.

I applied to all these colleges and, by the grace of a lot government programs, by the grace of individuals who supported other individuals, scholarships, etc., I got into a lot of schools. I chose to go to Brooklyn Poly [Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute, now a part of New York University], which was literally within walking distance, even though it was a long distance, over the bridge to my house.

My mother was not older, but she seemed older and she needed help, so I wanted to be close to home. I switched from chemical engineering—I hated chemistry—to mechanical engineering and finished that.

Then I was going to leave and go to work, and Xerox told me, “Don’t come to work.” I had worked for them in the summer. They said, “You need a master’s degree, and we’ll pay.” I got a fellowship from an organization called Gem [the National Gem Consortium, which seeks to increase participation of underrepresented groups in engineering and science]. I literally did my master’s degree in 18 months, left to work for Xerox, and the rest, as I say, is history. I stayed at Xerox for 38 years.

On coaches and mentors:

I’ve had so many particular coaches and role models over the course of my career, I don’t know how I got so fortunate. In the beginning, a lot of my coaches and role models were peers. Before I went to work for Xerox, I was working at GE Western Electric Engineering Research and the Bell Labs. There was a guy named Roland Harris, just a regular engineer, a black guy in the lab.

He was a middle-aged man. He had a slide rule and just an amazingly welcoming and kind of comforting demeanor. He was the first guy that I saw that kind of looked like me. He was a male who was confident and not complicated. For the two summers that I worked there, he just helped me every step of the way to understand, “This is how you do it.” He showed me not just how to do it, but that I belonged there.

As I got older, I was blessed with some of the best. One of the best was Vernon Jordan [a D.C. power broker and civil rights leader who died in March 2021]. He was my friend. He was my father. He was my brother, my uncle. He was a board member. Literally from the time he met me in 1992 until the time he died, he took care of me.

He met me when I was the assistant to the chairman and CEO. The assistant to the chairman and CEO was a great job. But it’s kind of like getting presentations together. I call it the “chief cook and bottle washer” kind of person, a training position. It was really good. I did it for two years for [Xerox CEO] Paul Allaire, and that was when Vernon met me.

I remember walking in the hall, and he called out, “Ms. Burns” in his very deep voice. I turned around and looked at this guy who I knew about because he was pretty famous at this point—not just in Xerox, but famous in the world because he was a civil rights leader and on the cover of Time magazine or one of those magazines. And I said, “Me?” And he said, “Yeah, you.” And I came and then he said, “My name is Vernon Jordan. How come you haven’t come over to meet me?” And that started our relationship.

That day he went home and he sent me a typewritten note with his signature on it and three books to read. One of them was Song of Solomon. He cared for me above and beyond my progression as a career person, cared for me through my whole career, my whole life, [when] my kids [were] born, my marriage to my husband—everything. He was just amazing.

On using quotas to advance diversity:

On the subject of quotas, I have had a maturing of thinking or changed my mind, which is something that most politicians would never say that they did but, I think, most human beings do.

Here’s my original thinking: Quotas are not necessary. Literally, two things come together that negate a quota. One is the reasonable understanding by business that diversity is good for business, that it’s the right thing to do and that it is fundamentally not worth fighting against diversity. The second is that you’re not going to be competitive. This is not a reasonable place to be, right?

So I said, “We don’t need government quotas to tell business leaders, who are smart, who can literally land an airplane on a dime when it comes to earnings in the quarter. They can perfect a business model like you would not believe, they can stave off competition, they can grow business. There is absolutely no need for a government agency or any government anywhere to tell them what to do.”

Here’s where I am now: Quotas are the punishment for your inability to do it yourself. Literally, it’s been years, years and years and years. I was in companies for 40 years, and we were talking about this, and still we haven’t made enough progress or any progress when it comes to black and brown people.

So I switched my approach to: I think quotas are fine because we’ve tried for a long time to say, “Please do it. Don’t you get it? Here’s the data, here’s the facts, do it. It’s a good thing to do.” We’ve heard people say, “Yes, it’s a good thing to do.”

And still the results are below par.

It’s not even bad. It’s almost like you could not have planned a worse outcome. There is still so much work to do. Quotas for me are a response to a lack of progress. It has turned out to be OK in the UK and European Union. When the European Union said, “You know, you got to have some women on the board,” guess what happened, right? The same thing in California. We’re starting to see it. So it’s not like the people don’t exist. It’s not like when they come on board there’s any fact pattern, any data anywhere that says your business performs worse, so why don’t we just get on it?

On advice for the next generation of female leaders:

My mother was this kind of amazing woman who had these sayings that she had no idea were smart but turned out to be brilliant. She always would tell me that if they wanted you to be like everyone else, they would have hired somebody else. What I mean is that female leaders have to be female. We try a lot to kind of conform, look like, act like, have behaviors like, model ourselves after, males.

The reason why you were hired into the company is probably because you were pretty good at what you were doing and you were doing that as a woman, not as anybody else. So don’t trade in your hat when you walk in the door and try to be like them. It is amazing how many people try to do this—we take on their dress, we take on their behaviors—very aggressive, very command and control. That’s not necessarily the way that we lead.

No. 2, there is this idea that we have in our own mind—also implanted there by society—that there is this thing called balance, right? We are going to balance our work and family. It’s kind of the oddest conversation in the world. What does that mean? [Former Xerox CEO] Anne Mulcahy would tell me all the time [that] balance was on average over your lifetime. So you will have huge amounts of months where you are not balanced, where you are spending too much time on work. My point in this thing about balance is, take some of the pressure off of yourself, participate in a joyful, complete, confident way in whatever you are engaged in and do it with joy.

Third, speak up. What has happened is that we are all victims of our past, of history, and in order to change the present, we have to actually know what happened in history and then talk about what we want to see different in the future. We have to actually engage.

I was in with a young executive who works for me—really amazing woman—and she said to me, “Ursula, they don’t listen to me; the men don’t listen to me. I will say something and then somebody else will say something and they will all listen to him.” And I said, “Well, what did you do?” She said, “Well, nothing.” And I said, “Well, speak up. Stop the room and say, ‘By the way, just for your information, just to make sure that you understand, I said the same thing and you guys weren’t listening. I listen to you; you should listen to me.’”

So actively engage to change the present so that the future is better for our children. Have fun—enjoy it. And I would say be women: We can’t try to be men. Be women.

About the Author

Mark A. Wynne

Wynne is vice president and associate director of research in the Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

The views expressed are those of the author and should not be attributed to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas or the Federal Reserve System.

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