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Ursula Burns: Xerox's Fearless Leader


In 2009, Forbes Magazine published a·list of the most powerful women in the world. At number fourteen there was a dazzling newcomer Ursula Burns, one of only two African-American women on the list. . She was a power player that few outside the industry had ever heard of; so it was an extraordinary achievement that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Ursula Burns was named Chief Executive Officer of Xerox Corporation in July of 2009 and Chairman on May 20, 2010, officially taking the reigns from former CEO Anne Mulcahy. Even before she ascended, Burns had become known throughout the corporate world for her forthright manner and blunt speech. As the only black woman to head a Fortune 500 company, she has a unique perspective on leadership - the weighty responsibilities of a leader and the fearlessness required for great leadership.

Burns started out at Xerox as a summer intern in 1980, learning and growing under the tutelage of a long line of mentors; including Wayland Hicks, who hired her as his executive assistant in 1990 when she voiced concern about diversity initiatives at a company meeting.· Paul Allaire, then Chairman and CEO, in 1991 poached her from Hicks and made her his executive assistant after she questioned him about hiring practices in a meeting.

Xerox corporation helped pay part of Burns’ tuition as she earned an mechanical engineering degree from the Polytechnic Institute of New York and a graduate degree from Columbia University. While she climbed, she learned and carefully cultivated the attributes required for someone who had the top seat at a Fortune 500 company.· But most importantly, she learned to sublimate her ego.

Despite all the media attention that swirled around Ursula Burns when she was promoted to CEO, she has·been careful to stress·it’s not about her, it’s about the Xerox brand and about the employees, investors and stakeholders.··In a quote from Black Enterprise Burns says, “It’s so little about you . If you are just trying to become famous then almost surely it will be a disaster . Keep your eye on what’s important and everything else will fall into place.”

In a world increasingly reliant on new media, information technology companies who rest on paper and fax machines·are facing a mulitude of challenges. Although·Burns sits at the helm, she does not have an easy task ahead of her.·Xerox posted a 30 percent drop in sales from equipment and other hardware in the last quarter. The future·for the·demand for paper, toner and other supplies is slowly becoming obsolete, which make up about four-fifths of (Xerox) revenue. ·

Last year,·Burnsmade a bold move and·acquired Affiliated Computer Services, a major business process outsourcing (BPO) company in an attempt to dramatically expand·Xerox·business services. Xerox assumed ACS’ $2 billion debt, a move that some on Wall Street criticized as foolhardy. The Wall Street Journal named the enormous deal ‘Xerox’s Hail Mary Pass’ and analyst Douglas McIntyre predicted that the market would drive Xerox stock into the ground, cheerily accompanying his article with a picture of a nuclear mushroom cloud.

So what does the future hold for Ursula Burns? Don’t bet against her. Take a cue from·her improbable beginning – she was raised by a single mother in a New York City housing project and became the first African-American CEO to head a Fortune 500 company, the most powerful black woman in the corporate world.

In a talk withstudents at Spelman College in 2009, she pointed back to her core belief:

“ The Jesuits have a saying: ‘Men for Others’. I’ll change that to ‘People for others’. Leaders are truly people for others. People believe in the greatness of their company has everything to do with them. It has very little to do with them. They are thousands of people and their greatness is only as good as each individual one of those people are. “

If Ursula Burns practices what she preaches, then the 130,000 employees of Xerox have nothing to worry about.· She’s proven she has the ability to lead. Who wouldn’t want to follow?

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