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Barrier-Breaking CEO Ursula Burns Offers Her Advice about What People Need from Leaders Now

Ursula Burns, first Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company

As a little girl, Ursula Burns—who would grow up to be the first Black woman to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company—asked a speaker at her elementary school a question, and he responded: “You know, you’re really smart but you have a lot of problems.” After she asked what they were, he spelled them out: “You’re Black, you’re a girl, and you’re poor.”

Years later, she thought: If God told me I could be anything I wanted, I would say: “A Black woman.” So, he was wrong about two of the alleged strikes against her.

“The one thing that was true, that was a structural problem for me and Black people like me was that we lived in poverty,” Burns said at the 2021 California Conference for Women in conversation with filmmaker, thought leader, and the First Partner of California Jennifer Siebel Newsom.

Dealing with the many forms of poverty—financial, access, power, educational, and healthcare poverty—shrinks the world for people because so much time must be spent navigating just staying alive.

So, how did Burns become the first Black woman to break through and be named CEO of Xerox 12 years ago?

A Mother’s Words of Wisdom

Burns credited her mother with teaching her three vital lessons:

  • Your circumstances are not who you are. They only happen to be where you are.
  • Success depends on whether you leave behind more than you take away.
  • And, don’t get distracted.

What Helps Leaders Navigate Change

As a CEO who led Xerox through a massive transformation (from being a manufacturer to a business service provider), Burns was asked what that taught her about how people can best lead through changing times like these. Here’s what she said:

  • Tell stories, provide a vision. “One of the things I learned was that stories matter, communications matter. Putting things in context matters. Slowing down and telling people the reality of what’s going on and giving them hope by providing them with the vision and idea of what it’s going to look like when we get through this is fundamental. It’s foundational to having people follow you.”

“When you are a leader, not everyone voted for you. But at a time of struggle, even the people who aren’t massive supporters are looking to leaders to help give them some context, give them some confidence, give them some idea of what they can do to help to move the ball down the road in a positive direction.”

  • Be real. “You should never ask people to do, understand, live with something that you wouldn’t be able to do yourself,” she said. “You have to be in it with them.”

3 Things Businesses Need to Do Now

On what businesses need to do now to meet structural inequities made vivid by Covid-19, Burns offered the following:

  • Offer as much flexibility as possible. “I just say to all companies ‘Think about and focus on being flexible. The pandemic is teaching us we need to do this.”
  • Diversify corporate boards voluntarily—or quotas will be acceptable. “I was dead-set against quotas but now I think quotas are positively acceptable. They are the punishment that you get when you don’t do the right thing by yourself.”
  • Accept that inclusive, balanced capitalism is the formula for success. “It is wrong and unsustainable to have 1,000 marbles and 1,000,000 people – and two people own all the marbles. After a while, they are going to get disenfranchised, fall out of the system, and act to actively destroy the thing that makes this country great. Capitalism that is inclusive and balanced is the formula for success.””We can’t sit back and continue to convince ourselves that there is no competitive reason, no societal reason (to be inclusive),” she added. “It’s a losing argument plain and simple.”

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