SHE-E-O FEATURE OF THE WEEK: Ursula Burns

How have female CEO’s risen to the top? What was their journey? Let’s explore…

I’m empowered. I have the skills. I’m ready to take on the world. Now, if I could just figure out tangible steps to get there. This series has two purposes: to celebrate women’s accomplishments in business, and to research their path to success.

Notable things you should know about Ursula Burns:
1) Started off as a mechanical engineer intern at Xerox and worked her way up to CEO
2) In first 5 years as CEO transformed Xerox into a thriving international services provider and made the company profitable
3) Burns spearheaded the largest acquisition in Xerox history, the $6.4 billion purchase of Affiliated Computer Services.
4) Led Xerox into a successful separation into 2 independent publicly traded companies
5) Burns is an active advocate for STEM programs and was appointed to lead the White House’s national program in STEM
6) Burns came from the projects in Lower East Side New York with a single mother. Against the odds she earned a BS in mechanical engineering from Polytechnic Institute of NYU and a MS in mechanical engineering from Columbia University.

Ursula Burns is a lifer at Xerox. She started as an engineering intern at age 22 while she was finishing her master’s in mechanical engineering at Columbia University. The internship included partial funding for the master’s degree.

Once she received her degree in mechanical engineering, she started a full-time role in product development. She advanced through the ranks as an engineer, manager, and eventually became SVP of corporate strategic services, where she oversaw production operations.

7 years later she was appointed as President and 2 years after that CEO in 2007.

Burns mentions a critical step was in 1990 – 10 years into her career, she was asked to be an Executive Assistant to EVP Wayland Hicks.

Initially she was offended by the suggestion that an accomplished engineer of 10 years would be placed into a secretarial role, but Hicks made it clear the position was well beyond secretarial duties. That role led to 9 years later running the entire global manufacturing at Xerox in 1999.

How did Burns get on EVP Wayland Hicks radar? She spoke up. She was at a company event on work-life balance and was offended at Hicks’ response as to why diversity matters. She essentially chastised this EVP in front of the company in an unfavorable tone.

After the event, Hicks’ approached Burns and explained there is a better way to disagree. This led to several further conversations related to the matter and they developed a productive work relationship.

I have two takeaways from Ursula’s story. 1) Similar to Mary Barra, having an ally in high places is a key to rising to the top. This is the second female CEO I’ve profiled that took an executive assistant role and had the opportunity to shine in front of the right people. 2) Speak up and be unapologetically you. By speaking her mind, albeit not in the best tone, led to significant conversations with people that mattered in her career. That is not a coincidence.

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