Xerox's Burns: Have Fun, Be Impatient

Xerox chairman and CEO Ursula Burns, among the highest-ranking women executives in the U.S., emphasized that having a passion for your job and not being complacent with the status quo are critical keys to success.

"You can't leave your passions behind, and you can't leave your personality behind. If your company doesn't accept that, you should leave and find a company that values you," said Burns, delivering the keynote at the Women in Cable Telecommunications Leadership Conference here Tuesday at the New York Hilton.

Burns, who is also the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company, joined Xerox in 1980 as a mechanical engineering summer intern.

She began her address by talking about her mother, who emigrated to New York City from Panama at 25. Her mother, who died in 1983 in her 40s, was a single parent who never earned more than $4,400 per year but instilled in her children a love of learning and the American ideal of aspiring for greater things.

"My mother would always say, ‘Where you are is not who you are. You happen to things. Don't let things happen to you,'" Burns said.

Burns offered the WICT conference attendees seven lessons from her career:

1. Be good at something and be good at it before you look at the next job. "There is no substitute for hard work or good performance," she said.

2. If you leave a job early you can't succeed.

3. Embrace change. "If you are not fearful then you will get an upper hand," Burns counseled.

4. Don't be too big for your role. Burns talked about "taking laterals," to engage in tasks that may seem to be outside the scope of your job duties. "It's amazing what you learn from the things you think you don't have to do," she said. "If your company is a good company, they won't ask you to do something stupid -- they asked you to do something because they need the help."

5. "Have a whole lot of fun."

6. Stay true to who you are. Burns said that when she came to Xerox, "I was a little less polished in 1980... I was an urban city person with a big Afro." But her appearance never was an issue in her working life, she said -- the company was interested in her contributions. "I learned later that's what helped me: that I was able to be myself."

7. It's OK and even desirable to be impatient.

On that last piece of advice, Burns pointed out that less than 20% of officers in American companies are women. "We're relatively complacent about the status quo with women but it could be state of educational system, or the state of families in the United States," she said. "Pick a couple of things you are impatient about. Don't be irresponsible, don't be stupid about it, but you have to figure out how to drive change."

Burns said she decided to study engineering, because she determined that would provide the highest salary after four years of college. She earned a bachelor's of science degree in mechanical engineering from Polytechnic Institute of NYU and a master's of science degree in mechanical engineering from Columbia University.

At Xerox she rose through the ranks, earning a promotion in 2000 to senior vice president of corporate strategic services before she was subsequently appointed CEO in July 2009. Burns cited as one of her mentors former Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy, but said most of her sponsors were men who were peers or junior to her.

Asked what keeps her up at night, Burns cited the global economic environment. "I get counseled all the time to not look at my share price. I'm failing at that," she said.

Regarding the economy, in the short term, she said "the social contracts" between companies and governments will need to be renegotiated. "It's a fundamental disagreement about what they think they should have and what we can afford," Burns said. "America is not used to sacrifice."

Longer term, what concerns Burns is that the U.S. is falling critically behind in developing a workforce with science, engineering and math skills. "We educate more sports marketing people than we do engineers in the U.S.," she said. "That cannot be an acceptable situation."

In November 2009, Burns was named by President Obama to help lead the White House national program on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and was appointed vice chair of the President's Export Council in March 2010.

Burns noted that she was invited to speak at the WICT event by Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt, who is on Xerox's board of directors -- and, she added with a smile, a member of the compensation committee.