Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Ursula Burns: Taking Xerox Into the Future

Ursula Burns appointment as the CEO of Xerox in July 2009, positioned her as the first African-American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. At the time, Xerox was struggling to remain relevant in a market that had transitioned to digital technologies. In an interview CNN Money when asked what business Xerox was in, Ms. Burns responded "We're in the business of enabling our clients to focus on their real business while we take care of their document-intensive business processes behind the scenes. I'll use Fortune as an example. You're not in the business of printing a magazine. What we see about Fortune is the printed magazine."

After a $6.4 billion purchase of Affiliated Computing Services, an outsourcing company, Ms. Burns aptly lead the firm through the largest purchase in its history. Xerox's shift away from manufacturing copier machinery and into technological services. According to Fast Company's 2011 interview, Xerox's revenues are broken down as follows: $10.3 billion Technology (sales, leasing, and maintenance of copiers and supplies), Services $9.6 billion (back office assistance, outsourcing, consulting), $1.6 billion Other (paper and network services). By aligning the new vision of Xerox-back office services so you can do what you do best, with the dominant image of the Xerox brand for office machines, Ms. Burns has provided a pathway to applying Xerox brand recognition in a digital age by ensuring that Xerox is apart of the process. This process may begin with a digital image but can often still result in a paper copy, a process that Xerox is now adept to handle from input to output. While the upheaval has certainly not been without challenges including labor disputes, major leadership changes, and financial uncertainty, Xerox has weathered the storm.

But Ms. Burns leadership to move Xerox into a position of product diversification is nothing new. As we read this week, Michael Dell's strategy is similarly taking Dell into a supplier of enterprise architecture products. Similar to the former GE CEO Jack Welch, Ms. Burns was not an outsider picked to lead the company into the future due to her thirty-two year career with the firm. Her insider perspective was conducive to understanding the inner workings of the firm and also provided an opportunity to learn. She pointedly acknowledges her personal and professional commitment to the firm in her final response:

"You've spent your whole career in one organization. I think you were on the speed-dial lists of all the headhunters, but you didn't leave. What's your advice to a young person starting out today who wants to be a CEO?"

First, don't start out wanting to be a CEO. You're going to be really disappointed if you do that because you may end up doing things you don't love.

Find something that you love to do, and find a place that you really like to do it in. I found something I loved to do. I'm a mechanical engineer by training, and I loved it. I still do. My son is a nuclear engineer at MIT, a junior, and I get the same vibe from him. Your work has to be compelling. You spend a lot of time doing it.

And the reason I never left -- even though I had, as you say, opportunities to leave -- is that this company was my family. I don't mean that in a mooshy way. I had friends here. I saw the world with this place. I learned to lead in this company. I got to work on these great problems.

And whenever I felt like leaving, it was generally because something bad was happening to this company. A good friend of mine who's a board member said to me, "You can't stay when times are good only. You've got to stay when times are bad. If you have a relationship that's a good one, you have to help in the tough times."

And every single time I could have left, the day or the month after I didn't leave, I was so happy I didn't."

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