Leadership Spotlight: Xerox CEO Ursula Burns

Leadership Spotlight: Xerox CEO Ursula Burns

Ursula burns

                After one of my recent speaking engagements where I was presenting on Leadership for Young Professionals, an attendee came up to me and expressed her frustration trying to “move up the Corporate Ladder”. I hear this all the time from young professionals who are working diligently for companies and aren’t sure what they can do to get ahead and assume more leadership responsibilities.

              One name immediately came to mind as an example of a business executive, CEO in fact, who started as an engineering intern in her company and later became the first African-American Women CEO of a Fortune 500 Company. This woman in Leadership is Ursula Burns. I told this young lady at the conference that I wanted her to Google Mrs Burns and read about her career journey with Xerox. I’ve never met Mrs. Burns personally, but would one day love to because I truly admire her story!

              Ursula Burns was raised in a New York City housing project, but had a mother who told constantly told her “Where you are is not who you are.” That mentality pushed her to pursue higher education at New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering majoring in Mechanical Engineering. She then received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Columbia a year later. In 1980, she began her career as a mechanical engineering summer intern at Xerox. She later joined the company as an employee and served in various roles with product development and planning. She then took on larger leadership roles, leading teams in the color and fax divisions and office network printing divisions. In 2000, she was named senior vice president, Corporate Strategic Services, heading up manufacturing and supply chain operations. She then took on the broader role of leading Xerox’s global research as well as product development, marketing and delivery. In April 2007, Burns was named president of Xerox, expanding her leadership to also include the company’s IT organization, corporate strategy, human resources, corporate marketing and global accounts. At that time, she was also elected a member of the company’s Board of Directors. Burns was named chief executive officer in July 2009. That same year, Forbes named her the 14th Most Powerful Woman in the World!

              I love this piece of advise Mrs Burns shared in a 2013 Wall Street Journal Article when she talks about not taking things so seriously. “Ninety percent of this stuff is just not that serious,” she says. “We get crazy about it.” Burns says she often thinks back to her mother’s advice to stay grounded. “Continually go back to the basic stuff,” she says. “Be prudent. Enjoy it.”

               Having started out at Xerox as a summer intern, Mrs Burns worked her way up through the company to become CEO. If you look closely at the time frame, it was almost 30 years from the time she started as an intern (1980) to the time she was named CEO (2009). Leadership Development is just that – Development. It takes time. There is no magic formula to create it overnight. Rome wasn’t built in a day and you can’t “move up the corporate ladder” in a day, either. Understand that Leadership Development is a process. Mrs Burns is a perfect example of a leader who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way because she has the experience of working in numerous areas of The Xerox Company.

Are you frustrated because you’re not accelerating in your company as quickly as you desire? Take the time to figure out what leadership roles can you participate (Career and Community) to showcase your talents.

– Dr. April

Dr. Carmen April's Speaker Series

Dr. Carmen April’s Speaker Series

           This post is part of a series on Leadership presented by Dr. Carmen April. She is a young entrepreneur and community leader recognized as a 2013 Nashville Business Journal Top 40 Under Forty Award Recipient and is currently a 2014 New Leaders Council Fellow – Nashville Chapter.  Dr. April is available for speaking engagements on this Entrepreneurship and life leadership for college students and young professionals.


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