Xerox CEO Ursula Burns visits campus to talk business

Ursula Burns currently serves as the Chairwoman and CEO of Xerox, a Fortune 500 company. She is both the first woman to succeed another woman as CEO (Anne Mulcahy) of a Fortune 500 company, and the first female African-American CEO. Burns frequently appears on Fortune’s and Forbes’ most powerful women lists, and was rated the 22nd most powerful woman in the world by Forbes in 2014.

Burns was the second speaker in the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series, a series of lectures aiming to provide students with insight into the work of global leaders, CEOs, and management experts. During her time at Xerox, Burns succeeded in making the company a more diversified business enterprise. In her lecture, Burns discussed Xerox’s business transformations, described her leadership brand, and offered useful advice for succeeding in all types of careers.

Like David Farr, CEO of Emerson Electric and previous Mellon speaker, Burns believes that a company’s ability to change and adapt holds the key to the company’s success. Burns believes that, in today’s changing world, “if you don’t transform your company, you’re stuck.”

Before certain advances in technology, Xerox led the market in document printing and production. The new technological advances greatly diminished the value of the company’s product, and Xerox needed to evolve into an enterprise more apt for the changing world. Burns detailed this evolution in her lecture, introducing and describing two main parts to the discussion of company transformation: “What [the company] does” and “How [the company] does it.”

What Xerox Does

Burns began by introducing the notion of adding product and customer value to company goods. To illustrate this, she explained how the value of the printed page changed, forcing Xerox to adapt. In this case, the actual demand for printed pages hadn’t decreased, but the value customers derived from them plummeted. Customers no longer valued printed documents; new technologies enabled them to print hundreds of document copies at relatively low costs. To work with this technological change, Burns transformed Xerox into a business process development company, and expanded to include more valued services of document technology.

How Xerox Does It

To expand, Xerox started buying small companies that provided similar services. As Xerox purchased enterprises around the country, it quickly realized that it was losing its company identity due to the distinct nature of each enterprise. Fearing the consequences, the company worked to solidify the identity it had. Xerox stopped purchasing the small enterprises and focused on becoming primarily customer based.
Burns believes that what the company does is simple and straightforward. The way in which the company transforms, however, is far more complicated. To further explain why Xerox transformed as it did, Burns talked about her leadership style and her qualities as a CEO.

Ursula Burns as a Leader

“I was the only person in the room who looked like me,” Burns said. People noticed that Burns was different; Xerox noticed that she was different.
In the business world, Ursula Burns is a triple minority; she is black, a woman, and an engineer. But, what do these differences really mean? During her lecture, she highlighted two main differences between her and other CEOs: gender differences and practical approaches to problem solving.

Burns says, “gender differences are real, and I like them.” She asserted that there are differences in how men and women approach problems, run enterprises, and make decisions. Furthermore, she argues that these differences are highly beneficial for a company. According to Burns, these differences help steer the company towards toward success, providing a variety of well-constructed options and diverse ideas.

As an engineer, Burns has a far more practical mental framework than other CEOs. Her decisions and reasoning are rooted in practicality. Her practical framework further enhances the company’s decisions, offering a logical perspective to business proceedings.

Burns’s method of approaching problems differs from that of other CEO’s because of gender differences and her highly practical frame of mind. Other than her method, her employees described her style similar to that of previous male CEOs.

“Breaking and Sweating,” Burns said, is a Company’s Perception of its CEO. Most CEO’s believe that their company employees must never see them “break a sweat.” These CEOs feel compelled to create the illusion of a nonplussed corporate authority, an authority that never outwardly reveals its personal fears or company concerns. For Burns, creating such a facade feels wrong and counterproductive.

“My team sees me sweat. When I’m crazed, they know it; when I’m happy, they know it,” Burns said. She esteems this type of transparency in her company for the sake of a better team effort. Burns believes that, as a team of members, the company makes up the whole. Her leadership style is to be authentic, even in the bad things.

Burns describes herself as a “missionary leader.” A dedicated, driven individual, she goes “in for the long.” All of her personal milestones are making Xerox better and improving her relationship with the company.

Advice for The Ambitious Student

Long before she was a CEO, Burns attended an all girls Catholic high school in the middle of Manhattan. For those students graduating the high school, there were essentially only three career options: becoming a nurse, a nun, or a teacher. None of these professions appealed to Burns, so she took to the library to research other career options. Burns initially studied chemical engineering, but soon realized that she was not passionate about the field, and switched to mechanical engineering. Burns graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and accepted an internship at Xerox. At Xerox, Burns fell in love with the company, and returned to work full time. During her time at Xerox, she was offered two tantalizing positions with other companies, but she refused them because she was dedicated to her work.

This kind of dedication and hard work greatly impressed the audience. Inspired by Burns’s lecture, one audience member raised her hand and asked Burns for advice on having a successful career. Burns in turn stood up, picked up a piece of chalk, and wrote three keys for success on the chalkboard.

To succeed, every person needs to work hard. Hard work is inspired by the passion influencing that work, and all people must realize the career path that gives them joy, Burns stated.

Burns believes that the only way one can truly work hard is if they have joy, for truly hard work depends on the level of one’s passion for his subject. The higher this level, the more invested individuals becomes in their work.

A successful individual cannot see money as an end goal. Monetary gain is a poor incentive and won’t lead to truly hard work. As Burns assured, “one more dollar doesn’t make a difference,” and in the grand scheme of the world, the extra money one could have earned without dedication and joy is insignificant. Finally, Burns reminded her audience that, “the world is too big and life is too short to either not like what you do or to not like where you work.”

She closed by reaffirming her key advice, “the only way to succeed is to work hard, have joy, and remember that money is not the end.”