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A Conversation on Leadership

03/03/2011 12:00 PM Wong Auditorium
Ursula M. Burns, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Xerox Corporation

Description: Her "journey to the top" is one that "could only happen in the United States of America," says Ursula Burns, describing her rise from New York City projects to the apex of corporate leadership at Xerox. For an eager audience of management students, Burns also highlights lessons from her early years and 30"year career.

Burns' mother, a single parent who raised three children in the Lower East Side on a meager cleaner's salary, taught her that "where you are is not who you are." She also forcefully conveyed the importance of a good education. So Burns leveraged her Catholic school education into first a college degree, then a career in mechanical engineering (after a mistaken detour into chemical engineering.)

When Burns first joined Xerox as an engineer in 1980, there were virtually no women in the company in her field, and few black women anywhere. Burns thought she would stay only a few years. Instead, she remained for decades, due in large part to the growth she found possible at the corporation: "They said, 'We hired you because we think you're smart, and if you work hard, we'll give you lots of opportunity.' And they never went back on their commitments."

Along the way, Burns learned a few things, such as not looking for a promotion until "you've figured out a way to transform the current work," and the importance of "loving change, and thinking hard before turning down a job, especially from someone senior to you." She also figured out, "If you think you have to trade off who you are to make it, then you are going to fail." At Xerox, she was valuable to the organization precisely because of her differences, she says. "It's interesting how uniqueness is more of a significant advantage; it got me seen."

To be an effective leader, she advises, you must determine "your space" in the firm; develop real listening abilities; have a clear vision and take risks. Burns is a big believer in setting objectives and standards for performance. She worries that these days "we're in the mode of making everyone feel better, loving each other, to the detriment of people focusing, trying hard and differentiating the great from not so good." One last thing, she counsels: Don't get distracted by how much money a position might make. "The measure of money is least important over the long term. There is a point where there is too much, and you'll know when you are there. Unfortunately, if you get to that point, you may have lost too much of the fun, joy and wonder enjoying the situation you're in, trying to have people around you be better, in pursuit of making more money."

About the Speaker(s): Ursula Burns joined Xerox in 1980 as a mechanical engineering summer intern and later assumed roles in product development and planning. From 1992 through 2000, Burns led several business teams including the office color and fax business and office network printing business. 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 and assumed the role of chairman of the company on May 20, 2010.

In addition to the Xerox board, she is a member of the MIT Corporation, and on the MIT libraries' visiting committee. Burns serves as a board director of the American Express Corporation and provides leadership counsel to community, educational and non"profit organizations including FIRST " (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), National Academy Foundation, University of Rochester, and the U.S. Olympic Committee, among others. Burns was named by President Barack Obama to help lead the White House national program on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in November 2009 and was appointed vice chair of the President's Export Council in March 2010.

Burns earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Polytechnic Institute of NYU and an M.S. in mechanical engineering from Columbia University.

Host(s): Sloan School of Management, MIT Sloan School of Management

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