A Monthly Publication from Citrin Consulting
Ursula Burns: Telling the Truth
November | 2012


IN THIS ISSUE

Courageous Leadership

TED Talks

Teleconference Series

 
Visit our Web Site
 

Visit Richard's Blog

Courageous Leadership

Ursula Burns: Telling the Truth

Ursula Burns is known to tell the absolute truth. She did it in 2001 when Xerox, the company she had been with since 1980, was near bankruptcy. Under her leadership as Senior Vice President of Strategic Services she made the call that moved Xerox away from machine documentation and into their new business model. The move entailed focusing on helping companies develop document management processes. She did it again in 2009 when as CEO of the company she attended a White House business meeting and told Barack Obama he owed her $3 billion since the debt-ceiling crisis was a contributory factor in Xerox's reduced stock price.

Born in New York City's lower east side, Ursula Burn's mother Olga, knew that education was the key for her kids. Running a successful day care center while taking in ironing allowed her to send Ursula and her siblings to a good parochial school. When Ursula discovered her talent in math, she exploited it and pursued a degree in mechanical engineering, along with her masters in the same subject from Colombia University. As luck would have it, Ms. Burns secured a summer internship at Xerox in 1980, which eventually led to a full time position.

As an engineer, she was initially content to stay in the lab researching and contributing to the advancement of Xerox's copier divisions. One day however, a colleague asked her if knew that there was more to Xerox than what they did in the labs, and would she like to explore some of those areas? She said yes and began an incredible journey that included working and eventually leading many of the major business units of Xerox.

In 1989, while sitting in on a discussion about diversity initiatives with Wayland Hicks, then head of marketing and customer operations, someone asked whether these programs lowered standards for advancement. When Ursula responded that the question did not deserve an answer, Mr. Hicks tapped her as his executive assistant. This assignment while seeming to be administrative in nature became her de facto leadership training program at Xerox.

In 1999, however, she seriously thought of leaving the company as she and others lost faith in the senior management and their ability to retain customers and revenues. Her friend and colleague Ann Mulcahy was named CEO and persuaded Burns to stay, tasking her to save the company with the development of a new business strategy.

Ms. Burns asked herself and others the real question that every CEO and senior leader must ask. "What is it that Xerox really does?" Her answer was to move the company towards improving other company's capabilities to manage documents and business processes so that those companies can focus on their core businesses. For example, Xerox is involved in the business process that manages the Easy Pass car transponder you may use to pay bridge and highway tolls. They don't make the transponders, but they make sure that the toll amount goes from your account to the State's account. This led to an array of new business opportunities but not without serious costs. During those initial days of the new strategy, the decision was made to outsource the manufacturing of copiers and that cost over 45,000 jobs as back in 2004. The company bounced back and by 2012 Xerox employed over 140,000 people.

Furthermore and perhaps much more exciting, Ursula Burn's strategy is defined a new way to create secure and efficient approaches for her customer companies to move away from paper files to digital files. Whether it is digitalizing reams of litigation documents in the court system or improving the tracking of paper medical records, she put Xerox on a path of saving time and money for their customers.

Ursula Burns is on an amazing journey, redefining a 104 year old company and valiantly leading a charge that had to be led. Her own journey took her from poverty to success and part of her message is that you must create and implement bold and innovative ideas in order to move the world ahead.

As I read about Ursula Burns, I'm most struck by several elements. First, smart helps. Second, her life long commitment to Xerox paid off by creating cultural comfort that allowed her to experience a broad range of jobs, making her an expert with a perspective of the company that was second to none. Finally, she is a person who speaks her mind and acts on her ideas. It's not enough to talk about it. We have to make it happen. That is certainly a lesson for me.

 

Back to top

TED Talks

Have you ever felt a business opportunity that could have made a real difference to your wallet or to the world? What if you missed the chance to hop on the development of the Internet? Ian Ritchie probably lost out on a million dollars or more because he thought the guy proposing the name "The World Wide Web" was being presumptuous. Be careful about first impressions...be very careful. Check out this Ted Talk here.

 

Back to top

130 Chapel Harbor Dr | Pittsburgh, PA 15238 | 412.327.8744 | All Rights Reserved © 2012 Citrin Consulting