CEO Series: Ursula Burns on Leading with Authenticity at Xerox
Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox from 2009 to 2016, rose from humble beginnings to become the first Black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company. In this interview with HBR editor-in-chief Adi Ignatius, she talks candidly about the frequent challenges and occasional advantages of being “the only” and explains why organizations needs to do a better job of promoting both economic and racial equality — themes that also animate her new memoir, Where You Are is Not Who You Are.
ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
Throughout this month, we’ve been sharing conversations with current and former CEOs about the business world’s most pressing challenges. Today, we wrap up the series with some remarkably candid reflections from Ursula Burns, who served as CEO of Xerox from 2009 to 2016. In that role, she was the first black female execuitve to lead a Fortune 500 company. It was the culmination of an amazing life journey, from a Manhattan tenement to the C-suite. She stepped down in 2016 after a battle with activist investor Carl Icahn, which led to the company’s breakup.
Today, she lives in London, sits on several corporate boards, and serves as an advocate for inclusive capitalism and racial equity. She also has a new memoir, Where You Are Is Not Who You Are. Here is Ursula Burns in conversation with HBR editor-in-chief Adi Ignatius.
ADI IGNATIUS: So let’s get right into it. What I like about your book is that it’s straightforward. I don’t know you, but I suspect it captures the real you. What was your goal in writing this book?
URSULA BURNS: It was to present Ursula Burns and the world that I lived in, in ordinary human terms. I am often described, and the world that I grew up in and currently live in, is described in a either overly harsh or overly idealized way. And one of the goals that I had was to present just life, my life, and my life while, when you review it backwards, looks spectacular and well-planned and well-formed and highly insightful. It was just every day going to the next day to the next day to the next day, and keeping some really basic beliefs and ideals in mind. So it was nothing, when people act like, God, you had this spectacular life, and I say, yeah, it was pretty good, but it was a life. It was nothing that crazy.
ADI IGNATIUS: So I have to say, reading the memoir, even though I knew you would end up as the CEO of Xerox, I kept thinking, she’s going to blow it. Along the way you describe situations where you’re too blunt or too impatient or doing, I don’t know, something dicey. How in the world did you manager to make it through?
URSULA BURNS: Because life is often too blunt, dicey. If you play your life back, if people play your life back in idealized terms, right, once you succeeded, they believe or suspect that you must have been this superhuman person who didn’t make mistakes, who always said the right things, who etc., etc., etc. And I know, from 30 years of working, 35 years of working in companies, and from 25 years of being around senior executives, government leaders, that they, like me, and like everybody walking the streets, are human. And they make mistakes. They misspeak. They are impatient.
But on that side of all these things, there’s another side that’s this relatively well-formed, well-meaning, a good person. And my journey was one where I made more, I’ve made more positive, right, correct decisions than I made bad decisions. But I didn’t have zero negative outcomes. I didn’t have zero bad decisions. And I am on the boards of some of the largest companies in the world and have been through my career. And I see it in life, that people are human, with good intentions, good hearts, generally smart, well-rounded, trained, all of that stuff. But they’re not, they don’t leap tall buildings in a single bound, and they don’t know the future. And we, sometimes we’ve made this so difficult to understand that we’ve discouraged a lot of people from engaging, a huge number of people from engaging.
ADI IGNATIUS: So I think you spent 36 years at Xerox. You write a lot about the first few decades, but relatively little about the 7 and a half years that you were CEO. Why is that?
URSULA BURNS: Because most of Xerox was about, was foundationed in the first 26 years. The end, for me, leaving the company turned out to be, you’re a custodian of a history, and the architect for the future. Right? As a CEO. And at the time, Xerox was always, I say this, we were always one step behind. We were a scrappy company, from the time I joined. I joined Xerox when we had laid off 15,000 people, like the month before I joined the company. I was one of like five guys who were hired in, primarily because I was a black female, and they had recruited me before.
But we had gone through, we were always chasing the next technology transition. So Xerox, by the time I got it, was in that state as well. We always survived. And the reason why we did is because we have good people, and we had this can do kind of scrappy attitude.
ADI IGNATIUS: So I always wondered why, exactly, you left Xerox when you did in 2016/2017. You know, it seems like it was a combination of personal reasons, as well, maybe, as the inevitable outcome after activist investor Carl Icahn’s campaign against Xerox leadership. Does that sound about right?
URSULA BURNS: Yeah, it was the perfect time. It was the perfect storm of events that came. Some of that storm was good and cleared ways, made things clear and cleared ways that I couldn’t see before. And so it was bad. I had decided, I started speaking to the board about my transition in year five, when I was CEO in year five. This is before Carl Icahn, this was after five years of the combination of ACS and Xerox.
And in year five, a whole series of things happened. One was, I was getting significantly more interested in politics. Not to run for anything. But I realized how impactful the combination between business and government could be if it worked well, particularly in some of the things that plague America from an equity and equality standpoint, education, healthcare. So I got pretty involved in that.
My husband had the first of his two very close calls with health. My kids were, you know, you name it. My kids were, so everything was kind of OK, and we had a good number two, and I was, that’s when I started to talk to the board about maybe a couple of more years we can think about this.
ADI IGNATIUS: So I think you put your finger on something. I mean, I think the corporate world has changed a lot, even in the four years since you left Xerox. CEOs, as you say, are responding to broader stakeholder needs. They’re speaking up as never before on social and political issues. What does good leadership look like now in this complex multi-stakeholder world?
URSULA BURNS: I will say this, I answer this question quite a bit when people ask it. When I was CEO, and before, it was relatively easy. You had one answer. And that’s the highest profits possible, the highest share price possible, period, end of discussion. And the timeframe was very short.
Now what’s happened is that the game has become a real game. It’s become an intellectual game. It’s one where you have to communicate significantly more specifically, precisely, broadly, than you’ve ever had to. You have to balance not only how much profit you make, how much cash you can generate, but how much of an impact positive you have on society and on your employees, the communities that you do business in, you have to take all of this into account.
Because society, the human population, governments, employees, obviously, which is part of the population, they’re starting to question some of the traditional approaches that we had. They’re starting to question why it is that a CEO, or business leaders in general, make tens of millions of dollars, and a critical worker, that we’ve deemed now essential, doesn’t get paid a minimum wage, when they don’t even get paid a living wage. Communications technology makes it almost impossible for you to have a secret. This is a good thing. You can create communities from, without ever seeing people, large communities, that have similar beliefs. You can communicate facts, and as we’ve learned, fiction.
The world is waking up and saying, this big 2% runs the world, 2% has access, 2% has wealth, 2% has an easy life. The other 98%, that’s one. Two, we had this massive pandemic thing, which everybody said, we said in the pandemic, all of you really important guys who get paid millions and millions and millions of dollars, stay in your homes, and all the guys who make $10 an hour, checking out, you have to come out. You push a gurney down a hospital corridor, you have come out to work. You’re called an essential worker. So this dislocated and made clear, brought to bear, some of the fundamental inequities that we had. So one is a pocketing by a very small number of people, all of the things that are called graceful in life. Number two is, we had to call on all of the other people to come out and server, to keep the world going. Number three is, we had for the 50th time another black man killed by a person in authority. And it all came, it all happened at the same kind of time. And this is what I call the perfect storm of events. And this perfect storm of events, we could let this pass. This could pass, if we just shut up. And if we allow it to come back the way it was before, then shame on us. Shame on us, anyone who believes that the world is unbalanced now. So this idea, I hate the phrase, but I love the phrase, building it back better, becomes really important. Because we know that it wasn’t great before. We can’t, going back to what?
ADI IGNATIUS: So let’s start with income inequality. That’s where we were. That is a tough issue. I mean, you were fortunate enough to make the megabucks as a CEO. Which is how the system works, but is also part of the problem you’re identifying. We used to write in HBR, it seems quaint now, the Peter Drucker maxim that CEOs shouldn’t make more than 20 times what average workers make. So you know, nobody who is offered that kind of money says, no thanks. So how, you know, how does the system change? How do you move the needle on equality?
URSULA BURNS: This is one that will take a coalition to move forward. So you said it right. There’s not going to be a CEO who’s going to be the first, I’m on the boards of companies, and I always remember this. When we were determining CEO salary, right, of the board, not of me, but of the board that I was serving on, and one of the things you didn’t want to do was have your guy be the highest. But you also don’t want him to be the lowest, him or her to be the lowest. So there’s always this game, right.
I think that we’re going to have to, over time, with the help of government, by the way, with the help, and I’m very nervous about government helping in any place. I’ll say that before I go much further. But I do believe that they have to help in some places. Right? So with the help of governments, we have to start to ratchet back, we absolutely have to start to ratchet back the compensation of executives. I don’t know exactly how to do that. But I know that they won’t do it voluntarily. We won’t do it voluntarily. It’s just like diversity. We are not doing it voluntarily. We’re going to have to mandate this thing, and set quotas.
But I think that we’re going to have to, if we want to re-establish a relationship amongst the citizens and governments and industry, we’re going to have to actually ratchet it back and have some, I don’t know if 20 times is right. Maybe 100 times. I don’t know what the number is. But there has to be some maximum. When I was a CEO, I used to look at banking, they were the, they’re the easiest guys to pick on. I’m sure they’re not the worst, but they’re the best guys, the easiest guys to pick on. Look at the CEO of these bank executives. You go to yourself, wow. You know, even if you’re an engineer, you make something. If you’re a scientist, you cure something. But a banker basically doesn’t do anything. But they kind of arbitrate rich, risk – and they make tens, I’m going to get really shot for this, I know it, because I have a lot of banker friends, but I think we have to actually, we do have to have some guidelines of what acceptable looks like. And that’s, if we don’t have it, it’s because we’ve seen it. It’s going to keep going up and up and up and up, and it’s ridiculous.
ADI IGNATIUS: Well, we’ll just publish your phone number here for anyone who has an issue. So let’s, I want to talk about race. You mentioned that as well. You said, I found an interview 15 years ago, where you said you couldn’t really tell how being both black and female affected your career trajectory at Xerox, because you’d always been black and female and couldn’t compare it to anything else. But you detected zero difference, at least in your early years, in how you were treated versus how other newly hired engineers were treated. Now that you have some distance and perspective, do you still feel the same way?
URSULA BURNS: I largely do, from the early part of my career. In the early part of my career, I happened to pick or be selected by a company that was, I would say, a little advanced in the race area. They still had a ways to go, but if you know the history, we had, we thought about affirmative action, diversity, inclusion of women and people of color well become it became a big deal. We had this kind of enlightened leader named Joe Wilson. So we had, by the time I entered Xerox, I had entered a company that was, that had already kind of broken some ground and made it easy for me to walk in. As I got more senior in the company, and as the lanes got narrower and narrower, it became clearer, for sure, that race was, race and gender were either positives or negatives at times. Inside of Xerox. Outside of Xerox, just about every day when I was growing up, it’s interesting how you become numb to this, but every day, just about every day I was faced with a racist or a sexist approach, every day. And it’s really funny how it becomes so ordinary, when people ask you, what happened, and you go, nothing. It was the same as every day. Right?
But I remember very vividly, because I was a senior executive, and because I had made quite a bit of money by the time I was, let’s say, 35 years old, I remember once going into Barney’s, now, Barney’s is a store, it’s now bankrupt, but it was a simple thing, with my son. My son must have been 12 or 13 years old, and I can play back, my son can as well, the engagement. It’s the typical engagement that you know. Right? So there’s somebody who watches you. There’s somebody who, you go through this whole thing. And that’s not the first time it happened. But it was the first time that I actually looked at it and said, you know, this is just not right. And affronted it. Otherwise, you just kind of learn to live with it. So race and gender in the workplace, race and gender in society is something that most African Americans, and me as an African American female, we have normalized this into our life and into, so it’s more unusual for it not to happen than for it to happen. People actually don’t understand this.
We as black people, and we as women have to re-educate ourselves into what normal is, because right now, normal is, it’s bias. Normal is an assumption that, it’s a negative assumption base. And we, you know, we feel good when we get to the point where go, oh, yeah, she’s one of us. The entry into the room is that she’s not one of us. And one of us is what I call this elite supreme society structure that we have. It’s, I think it’s going to take a long time for us to get here, to get to the point where this doesn’t exist, because we live in a world, humans are people who always need somebody below them as well as above them. They need something to compare themselves to and feel better than.
And unfortunately, we’ve institutionalized color, race, as that’s the building block. That’s the fundamental is race. And it’s unfortunate. And I am no longer, as I’ve just gotten a little bit older and a lot more aware, and have a lot more control and knowledge, I’ve lost just about all of my patience on this subject.
ADI IGNATIUS: Well, there’s an interesting passage in the book where you say that your colleagues at college, you were at Brooklyn Polytech, could kind of deal with your success as a black woman only be elevating you to a kind of exceptional status, by viewing you as almost freakishly gifted, meaning that they couldn’t accept that any talented, hardworking black person could make it as well. So I’m wondering, did you see that pattern elsewhere?
URSULA BURNS: Absolutely. Absolutely throughout my career. It is, this is one of the things that I do rail about quite a bit. And I, in the latter part of my career, people would say these amazing things. Oh my God, you’re so, and I say, listen. First of all, I would respond with, basically that’s just not true. I’m about as good, maybe marginally better than you are. Right? We’re all sitting at the table as, around this table as CEOs. No, Ursula is not this remarkable person. You say that so that you can justify me being at the table and only me being at the table who look like me. The fact of the matter is there are a lot more who look like me who are like you. Not remarkable, pretty, worked hard, pretty skilled etc etc. But the – it took me a whole bunch of years because this would gnaw at me. This you know, oh you’re so amazing. And I would say, you know I’m really not that amazing.
And I finally put it into the context that I understood, which was what they were trying to communicate without knowing it, which is that in order for you to be on this trip with me, in order for you to be the chair of the President’s Export Council, in order for you to whatever, to be the CEO of this company, in order for you to lead this task force, I have to identify you as spectacular, or else I have to realize that there are people like you, who look like you, who act like you, who came from where you came from, who can be at this table as well. And I know, I am 100% convinced that that is exactly in the back of their mind when they were saying, yeah, she’s here because she is really amazing. No, she’s here because she’s about as good as you. You guys have blocked everybody else who looks like her at the door. That’s the reason why there’s not more of us sitting around the table.
The way that we get diversity to be normal, we can’t continue to talk about it, diversity, equity, and inclusion to be normal. We can’t describe the normal place. Right? We can’t say, oh, that’s, we’ll have more. What we have to do is do it. We have to absolutely get to the point where we are, I say this all the time, affirmative in our actions to assure, this is different than affirmative action, affirmative in our actions to assure that we increase diversity, that we actually have equity, and we have an inclusive, we have to affirmative in our actions. One, number one, start close to home, I always say. Fix your shop, Fix it close to home. Numbers really does help. If you are one or two of 40 or 50, you are a freak show. You are, and by the way, it’s advantageous. I will tell you. I say in the book, it was very advantageous. When I was growing up at Xerox, literally, I was constantly for ten years the only black woman in the room. If I moved a little bit, they would all think I was ready to ask a question. So if I raised my hand, I was always called on, because I would, I mean, you can’t miss me. This is an advantage if you’re ready for it, and it really is. We have to get to the point where that’s not, that is an anomaly, what I just said is an anomaly. We have more. We have more people, all different types. You then can live in a world of difference.
ADI IGNATIUS: So I want to focus, I want to drill down a little bit on just gender. You know, I often ask female CEOs about the role of gender in their jobs. It’s probably unfair, as I don’t ask male CEOs the same question. But you know, in your book, you make it clear that you acknowledge that you were a model, that you saw it almost as a mission to get out there, to dispel stereotypes and be an inspiration. So looking back, you know, is there something that you would define as female leadership? Are there aspects that are definable and different from traditionally male leadership?
URSULA BURNS: Yeah, I would. Now, I will preface this with, this is not a scientifically based analysis. I haven’t done a comparison. But there is a fundamental difference for female leadership. One is that there is this natural, I don’t know what, everybody I run into, doubt. I talk to women leaders all the time. I’m here, and we’re sitting, and we’re doing pretty well. The president, the CEO, the CFO. And there’s always this thing in the background of, you know, I probably could do this better. You know, I wonder if I’m doing it well enough. There’s this fundamental in our nature, this question always of, are we doing it, are we doing enough, this doubt. The impostor syndrome, a little bit of the impostor syndrome. It is amazing how pervasive this is. And by the way, you would not, if you talked to me, you would say, you have the impostor syndrome? I mean, look at this. You never shut up. You say, but the answer is, at night, I go to bed at night, lay in my bed before I go to sleep, and I say, OK, 25 things I did today that were bad. I could list them all. 25 things I did that were good, I couldn’t probably list them. Right? Because there’s this question. That’s number one.
Number two is, until this changes. Women are responsible for the nurturing of their families. There’s still this presumptive nature. We are responsible for nurturing people to be included, to actually try to find a positive. You know, when you have children, it’s like, you know, half the time they’re not worth talking to in a day, but you figure out a way to make them feel as though they’re doing the greatest thing in the world. That part of women is something that is unbelievably valuable in companies.
I think that there are so many things that are about natural, about women who are, that make us more appropriate leaders for the path that we have coming up ahead of us, which is to be significantly more inclusive, to be less brutal, to be less brutal, to be more nuanced about choices, to balance it out. I think that we are perfectly tuned for this.
By the way, I’ll say one other thing. I think it’s also a great time for African Americans and African American women really have, because one of the things that we have to do as an African American woman is that we have to be able, we have this thing called grit. You’ve got to be able to literally, I mean, women discard you. White women discard you. Black men discard you. And white men don’t even think you’re there. So you’ve basically got to just, you have to have this grit to kind of keep pushing, keep pushing, keep pushing. This is getting better. It’s sounding like, you know, we’re non-existent in the world, but quite honestly, if you look at any of the data, it goes like this. White men first. Then white women or black men. It depends on what the question is. But those two are second and third. Black women, we have to ask the question, we have to raise our hand and say, are we even in the game?
ADI IGNATIUS: So we probably only have time for one more question. And I want to ask, I mean, you write that you are optimistic about America and about the world, and I, you know, after everything we talked about, what’s the case for optimism?
URSULA BURNS: More people are talking, even if it’s, some of it is uninformed, more people are having a discourse about racial equity, about social justice, about economic equity, about, this is not only in the United States. It’s around the world. The conversation is happening everywhere. Everywhere. So they say what, right, if you drink too much there’s like, the first thing you have to realize that there is a problem. So I think I’m optimistic because I think we realize that there is a problem.
ADI IGNATIUS: You maybe hit bottom.
URSULA BURNS: I actually believe in the nature, the good nature of people. I see it more than not. I’m a human. I think that’s one of the things I write about in the book. And I have as many biases, prejudices, bad things that I think, as everyone else does in the world. Most I do, I know this, I can say this about me, I react to those in my head and in my body to try to suppress the bad and bring up the good. I think most people have that same part of their nature, that’s part of their nature.
And because we have gone through such a bad time around the world, pandemic, lack of leadership in the government structures, not only here, but in the UK, you know, all over the place. People are just abdicating their needs to live, to lead. And we have some examples right in front of us of just injustice. You cannot shoot this person because, you just can’t do these things. You can’t kneel on him, and you can’t do these things. Enough people are starting to wake up, that I think that we’re going to have, it is going to take a while, but we have more going for us than not going for us. And I’m not going to stop. I’m not going to stop pushing.
This is not about Ursula’s kids. Because Ursula and Ursula’s kids and Ursula’s family are fine. We are fine. We are the definition of fine. But we can’t be fine, we know, without, with so many people not being fine. And I think that fundamental thing, that fundamental piece of being human is present in all of us, that we look, and we say, I know that the guy on the street is, probably did something wrong. But he’s the child of someone. He’s a brother and sister and of someone. We have to take better care of each other. I believe that there’s more of that than of the bad things.
ADI IGNATIUS: I hope you’re right. Ursula Burns, I want to thank you for joining us on the IdeaCast. Thanks very much.
URSULA BURNS: Very happy to be here.
ALISON BEARD: That was Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox and author of the book Where You Are is Not Who You Are. Be sure to listen to all of our IdeaCast CEO series, wherever you get your podcasts.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe, we get technical help from Rob Eckhardt, Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.