I attended a panel on Women and Leadership at the 92nd Y the other day, where I was fortunate to hear Xerox CEO and Chairwoman Ursula Burns (the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company), PepsiCo CEO and Chairperson Indra Nooyi (consistently ranked as one of the world's most powerful women, as well as the company's first Indian-born and first female CEO) and Barnard President Debora Spar. I also had the good fortune to attend the MIT Club of NY event "A Conversation with Ursula Burns" a few days later, and found myself utterly inspired both times by the advice those women generously provided the crowds in attendance.
Below are some of the notes I took at each event, grouped by speaker. (At the panel, of course, each question was answered by all three speakers taking turns.) The speakers are in alphabetical order.
Ursula Burns was my favorite panelist because of her no-nonsense attitude - I think she calls it her "New Yorker attitude" - and straightforwardness. In these days where leaders constantly worry about being misquoted and prefer bland answers to ones with substance, it is refreshing to meet a CEO who tells it like it is and makes no apologies for it. This also reflects well on Xerox, which has substantially expanded the reach of its operations since its beginnings and is now a leader in activities such as e-discovery for legal firms or back office for health care records. The company used to be about copying, and then scanning; now it seems that the ability to (machine-read and) index scanned documents is the next frontier of document processing.
At both events, Burns spoke in very positive terms (glowing terms, in fact) about her predecessor, Anne Mulcahy, who seems to have had a personal and professional path very similar to Burns's and whom Burns counts among her most important mentors. Burns specifically described the great leadership skills Mulcahy demonstrated when Xerox teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in the early 2000s. Mulcahy also gave Burns, when the latter was about to become CEO, the advice that she didn't have to be the same type of leader that Mulcahy had been. (Apparently Mulcahy was profoundly loved by her troops and she embodied the "saintly leader" style of leadership.)
Burns's loyalty for and profound commitment to Xerox shone through her speeches at both events. She described a conversation she had with someone at the time where the future of Xerox looked extremely bleak and Burns could have left, where that other person, who was very close to her, asked the married Burns to compare the situation at Xerox (where Burns had by that point worked for twenty years) and the potential job offers elsewhere with her 13-year-or-so marriage and a romantic opportunity elsewhere. It was obvious for Burns she'd stick with her husband no matter what. That helped her articulate the answer to her professional dilemma. Not everyone would have reached the same answer, but it is to Xerox's credit that it's been able to attract and keep people with high degrees of loyalty to the company. (Put another way, I think the type of people who do well at a place like Xerox are people who have "loyalty" as one of their key values.) Maybe - which is what Burns explained at the MIT event - a reason why she never wanted to leave was that she's held at least 25 jobs at Xerox during her tenure there. Sometimes people think that changing companies is the only way for them to do something new, but that may also show short-sighted thinking on their part.
Burns also came across as a humble leader, in the sense that she was very quick to point out again and again that Xerox's success today belongs to its 140,000 employees rather than any one leader. This was made clear when she talked about how she was sometimes asked "how did you do it?" about Xerox's turnaround. She said that there is a false belief that "Superman flew in" but really it was the work of her 140,000 employees. She advocated allowing employees to see possibility and then taking a chance - allowing them to be confident enough and surrounded by the right people to make the right decisions on their own. She also said she doesn't like when people come in to ask if they can do something, because they typically know more about the situation than she does, and the most suitable approach for her at that point is to ask them questions to help them clarify their thinking.
Burns also touched upon the "Bring your whole self to work" model at Xerox, which she thinks is key to longevity in the workplace, and pointed out that many role models at the moment look differently from the way women and minorities look, but women and minorities should not try too much to assimilate - don't pretend you like country music if you don't but work for a Southern company, for instance - because that's really not what is being asked of them. In other words, focus on authenticity. One of her key mentors, besides Anne Mulcahy, was a Caucasian gentleman with whom she had absolutely nothing in common (opposite political views, no overlapping tastes in anything, etc) but who became a great friend. This also highlights the fact that there really is no formula to make mentorship work, and might explain why so many formal mentorship programs fail. (At the MIT event she also quoted with attribution Debora Spar's take on mentorship during the 92Y panel, but more on that in the second part of this post.)
Burns also said repeatedly there is much too much emphasis on money these days, especially when looking at the placement record of engineering students who then go to work for finance companies instead of contributing to the discovery of new products or processes. But she was also careful to say in the Q&A when asked about the advice she would give to people nearing 50 that those people should be careful with their money so that they keep options open and can take action if they feel they're getting stuck doing things they don't like at that stage in their career. They should also, she said, give some serious thought to what they're going to do with the rest of their life - a question she said too few people at that age ask themselves.
In the Q&A she also discussed the ongoing sustainability efforts at Xerox and its commitment to corporate social responsibility, as well as what she is doing to mitigate a repeat of what happened in the 1980s at Xerox Research Center, which made critical discoveries in modern computing that it didn't use. This allowed Apple to get these discoveries and grow to the company it is today. She talked about the importance of partnerships, but was also quick to highlight that Xerox would not have used the technology the way Apple did, so in a way the technology was able to "find" the company that would use it best. Xerox's future plans seem to focus on innovative business processes (especially for document-intensive processes) in a wide range of industries.
I'll end this post with something that Burns said at the 92nd Y, following a question to Indra Nooyi about the challenges she had faced a few years ago when it was not clear she was making the right bet in focusing on healthier products and an activist had advocated she break up the company. She emphasized (and I'm writing this in my own words, so this is not a direct quote of how she phrased it) that it is quite easy to "make the math work" on paper for many strategies that outside observers may think of, but one also has to recognize that the current strategy of a company is the result of careful considerations by the company's leadership team taking into account not only shareholder returns but the long-term impact on customers and communities.
Coming up in the second part of this post: Indra Nooyi's and Debora Spar's comments at the 92nd Y.