Carnegie Mellon University
November 03, 2015

Ursula Burns Inspires

The Chairman and CEO of Xerox, spoke to students as part of the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series

Sitting at the front of an enraptured audience was a product of a single-parent household, a former resident of low-income housing in Lower Manhattan, a mechanical engineer by happenstance and a onetime Xerox intern who ultimately became the first African-American woman CEO to lead a Fortune 500 company.

Ursula M. Burns knows all about transformations.

The CEO and chairman who oversaw the metamorphosis, by her own admission, from a copier company into a business services provider, Burns spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of Tepper School of Business students Oct. 14 as part of the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series, moderated by Senior Associate Dean for Education Laurie Weingart. Using frank, pragmatic and often humorous observations, she delivered a message seemingly simplistic amid complex times: Teamwork, hard work and communication are still necessary tools to succeed in this technology-driven age of business.

They are the instruments that helped her reshape Xerox and join the Fortune and Forbes lists of the world’s most powerful women.

“What happened was, we got so good at that one business (document management), we forgot about all of the others,” said Burns, a 1980 Xerox intern who became president in 2007 with a mandate to enact a company-wide conversion. “There are two parts of transformation. One part is the ‘what we do.’ The other is the ‘how we do it.’ The ‘what we do’ has changed. Not by stopping something, but by adding something. We had to add some other customer value to our portfolio.”

So Xerox began diversifying its core business processes, ultimately acquiring services and outsourcing company Affiliated Computer Services for $6.4 billion. The purchase turned Xerox into a business services provider. It also fairly doubled their number of employees and spread that workforce across far more geography than before – and, previously, Xerox had workers in some 160 countries.

“They speak a different language. They live in different parts,” Burns, who became CEO in 2009 and chairman in 2010, said of melding the two disparate workforces. “The culture of the two companies were totally different. So (the next step) was to figure out what kind of company we wanted to be. We thought about blending, but we liked ourselves enough – from the soul perspective – not to deviate too much. If you lose their souls first, they walk out the door (eventually).

“Transformation is about what you do. . . and that’s easy, generally. But how you do it is the hard part. It comes first and foremost from the top down.”

Burns laughed when trying to describe her “missionary” leadership style: She unites, she spreads the message, she remains loyal. Her authentic style was far from “a leadership brand,” and it developed over time.

“One of my predecessors always said, ‘You should never let the people see you sweat,’ and I have exactly the opposite approach,” she said. “We have to know each other. We as a team make up the whole. Me, alone, would leave a ton of blind spots.

“I have invested in this company. I’ve been there 35 years. This is the long run. We need both missionaries and mercenaries at work. Some of that in a leadership team is OK. But if we have a leadership team where half of the people are there for the short term, it’s not very good.” As for diversity in leadership, she added: “I think we should bring as many differences to the table as possible. They are to be emphasized.”

Burns, 57, came from the Baruch Houses in New York, attended parochial school and wound up studying mechanical engineering – because, she said, it paid well – at what is now Polytechnic Institute of New York University, just three subway stops from her home. She earned a master’s in mechanical engineering from Columbia. She ascended at Xerox to the point she succeeded her ally and leadership partner, Anne Mulcahy, as CEO and chairman.  

In the question-and-answer session at the end, Burns addressed her advice for students by walking up to the chalkboard and scrawling: Work Hard. Have and Bring Joy. Money is Not the End.

“Work hard. Technology should allow you to do significantly more valuable things,” she said. “The only way to work hard is to have joy. You guys particularly – you’re at Carnegie Mellon, you’re getting an amazing education. Find the place you love and something you love to do, and if you don’t (love it), stop doing it. (And) money is not everything. There is a point where one more dollar doesn’t make a difference, and it happens a lot earlier than you think.”

Dean Robert Dammon closed the session with an appreciation for Burns’ message: “I don’t remember anybody giving us the kind of insight you have given us today about who you are as a person. That was very inspirational.”

View presentation video.

View more photos from Burns’ presentation.