During my days at Bennett College for Women, every student was required to attend weekly Academic and Cultural Enrichment Series. We’d gather in the chapel every Tuesday and Thursday and listen to guest speaks talk about their experiences in the “real world” and offer advice on navigating the workforce. One of those moments, in particular, resonated. It was a lecture about women in high positions of power. Our president, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, took to the podium and quoted the words of Bennett’s ninth president, Dr. David Dallas Jones: “Young lady, what is your purpose?” As she continued her speech, the message was clear: discover your purpose, walk in it and find a mentor to help you along the way.
I took Dr. Malveaux’s words to heart and went on a search to find a role model. She had to be a trailblazer, she had to be a self-made woman and she had to be so darn good that even men are drawn to her leadership style. Finding “her” was fairly easy because she was the center of conversation in all my business classes. Her name was Ursula Burns.
At the time, Mrs. Burns was serving her first year as CEO of Xerox. She was the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company, and after I read her from intern-to-CEO success story, I knew she was the one. Today, nearly five years later, I’ve never met my mentor in person but she’s traveled with me on my journey to find my purpose — as I finished college at BC, during my numerous internships, when I first set foot on Columbia’s campus for graduate school (also her alma mater), and now, as I embark on the first years of my career.
My friends often joke that she can do no wrong in my eyes, but that’s clearly not the view of the masses. Ursula Burns was recently named one of the least-liked CEOs in America by 24/7 Wall St., which identified leaders with the worst reputations by examining employee reviews at Glassdoor. According to the list — which included eight other business heavyweights — Burns’ low rating reflected Xerox’s difficulties in its services business and employee layoffs.
Ursula Burns may not be the most popular person in corporate America right now, but I still look up to her for multiple reasons. She didn’t reach her current status being the nicest, sweetest or most-attractive person in the room; she was the person willing to take risks and stand by those decisions whether they immediately excelled or took time to pick up wind.
She came from humble beginnings. “I was raised by a wonderful mother in the rough and tumble public housing projects on the Lower East Side of Manhattan,” she wrote in her Lean In story. “Many people told me I had three strikes against me: I was black. I was a girl. And I was poor.” However, her mother didn’t see it that way. “She constantly reminded me ‘where I was didn’t define who I was,’” and Ursula took those words and ran with them. In 1980, as a mechanical engineering major at the Polytechnic Institute of New York, she landed a summer internship at Xerox, and she never fully left. She worked her way up the ranks to executive assistant, vice president and eventually chief executive officer.
As a leader, according to Fast Company, “She has long been willing to do whatever it takes–dismantle the company’s manufacturing unit that shaped her career; cut back or eliminate products that once defined the Xerox brand; branch out into uncertain (and risky) new areas of business–in an effort to reposition the company in an era of technological upheaval.” Her biggest criticism – the main reason why she made the unfavorable list – came from a push to buy Affiliated Computer Services, which closed for $6.4 billion in 2010. In the two years following the purchase, Burns said “there were lots of reasons for Xerox not to acquire ACS” but she took the gamble. The information technology company helped Xerox transition from its machine-making roots to digital services, but more than two-thirds of Xerox employees said it wasn’t enough and ultimately gave her bad review.
I respected the move. She spearheaded a shift at Xerox, a company once known copying machines and printers. Now, we rely on the brand for IT services like paying a parking tickets, booking an airline tickets and using the E-Z pass on the road. Xerox ‘s changes are still fairly new and it’s hard to determine the success so early, however, she’s taken full responsibly for the glitches and hard-to-swallow truths all the way.
That’s just the type of leader she is. She’s publicly taken accountability for every decision – good and bad. “We’re going to make mistakes,” she said during a recent interview with Ozy.com. “We just try to make mistakes where you can make them fast, so you’re not five years into the damn thing and realize, ‘Oh my God, that was a bad move. And we just threw billions of dollars after it.’ Fail fast and make sure that you fail early.” Her predecessor, friend and former CEO Anne Mulcahy, said she admires Ursula’s directness. “The thing I valued most about Ursula, and why I valued her participation in senior management, is that she has the courage to tell you the truth in ugly times,” she shared. And even President Obama praised her ability to ask tough questions during hard times. In 2011, the POTUS called upon Ursula to discuss methods for spurring the economy at the debt-ceiling debates. She was last to speak and before she took the floor, Obama said, “’This has been really good, and now I’m bracing for the tough one.’”
Leaders aren’t always the most popular people during change. Even if you don’t like her leadership style, Burns’ five-year tenure proves that she’s doing something right and still making a huge impact on the company.
I think Ursula Burns should look at her performance review like a midterm grade. It’s not the end of the semester; it’s just an opportunity to stay in the know, address concerns about bias and continue to break down barriers. Yes, her story let’s me know that I, too, can be a boss and work my way to the top. But more importantly, she leads by example and prepares me for what’s to come. Some women in business have a desire to be liked by everyone, and that mindset can be self-destructive. If someone asked me today, “Young lady, what is your purpose?” I’d smile and say my ultimate goal is to take risks and bring about genderless leadership. And like my role model, I will do it unapologetically.
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