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Burns subsequently served as CEO of the global telecommunications firm Veon and still sits on several major corporate boards. She is an outspoken champion of inclusive capitalism and racial equity, themes that animate her just-published memoir, Where You Are Is Not Who You Are.
Here are excerpts from the conversation. HBR: The corporate world has changed a lot in the few years since you left Xerox. CEOs are responding to broader stakeholder demands and speaking up on social and political issues. What does good leadership look like in this multistakeholder world?
You had to produce the highest possible profits and the highest possible share price—end of discussion. You have to balance how much profit you make and how much cash you generate against how much of a positive impact you can have on society, your employees, and the communities where you do business.
Society—and by that I mean the human population, governments, employees—is starting to question traditional approaches. And amid all that we saw yet another Black man killed by a person in authority. A lot has happened. If we all get the vaccine and simply return to the way things were, then shame on us. Income inequality is a tough issue.
You were lucky enough to make megabucks as a CEO. No one who is offered that kind of money ever says no thanks. So how can the system change? It will take a coalition to move things forward. I tend to be nervous about government involvement, but in this case I think governments can help ratchet back executive salaries and overall compensation.
Maybe ? There have to be guidelines, and there has to be a maximum. To understand the problem, just think about bank executives, for example. They arbitrate risk and make tens of millions. Why did you decide to leave Xerox when you did? Does that sound right? It was the right time. It was a perfect storm of events. Some of it was good and cleared up some things for me. And some of it was bad. My husband had health issues. My kids were up to…you name it. And then we had to deal with an activist. After that it seemed like the right time to hand things over to my two.
My natural tendency if somebody punches me in the nose is to punch them right back. I will literally fight you on the street. An activist is Like the company of a nice looking woman looking for a quick return. I knew that things were more complicated than that. We had to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in technology; we had employees all over the world whom we actually cared about.
If the only goal is to maximize shareholder value, my daughter could run the company—could run any company. Get help—from somebody outside the company. Everyone inside is feeling the same pressure you are. So find somebody who has experience with this but is not burdened with your history. You also said you detected zero difference 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? I largely do, especially as I look back on the early part of my career.
Xerox had an enlightened founder, Joseph Wilson, so by the time I entered the company, init had already broken some ground. But as I got more senior in the company, and as the lanes got narrower, it became clearer that race and gender were issues, sometimes in positive ways, sometimes in negative ones.
When I was growing up, I came face-to-face with racism or sexism almost every day. I became numb to it. I vividly remember walking into Barneys, the clothing store, with my son one day. I was already a senior executive and making quite a bit of money, but it was the typical situation where somebody is watching you the whole time.
Did you experience that throughout your life? How in the world can we make progress with a problem that runs so deep? s, s, s. One of the things you find when you go to a reasonably integrated place is that the dynamic is different. The language is different. Everything is different. The way we get diversity to be normal is to just do it. We have to be affirmative in our actions this is different from affirmative action to ensure that we increase diversity, that we actually have equity, that we are inclusive.
Start close to home. Fix your shop. s really do help. By the way, that can be advantageous. For 10 years at Xerox, I was the only Black woman in the room.
Women have a healthy, natural sense of doubt. At night I lie in bed and list the things I did that day that were bad. And women are still largely responsible for the nurturing of their families. That means we take responsibility for nurturing people to feel included, to feel valued. This is a great time for African American women, because we have this thing called grit. White women discard you. Black men discard you. So you have to have grit to keep pushing, keep pushing, keep pushing.
She said you had three options for your life: You could become a teacher, a nurse, or a nun. How did she not include CEO of Xerox? That was inand if you were female, you had a very narrow, well-defined set of choices. I remember that when I was seven or eight, I asked a question of a visiting geography teacher. Afterward he told me that I was smart, that I had asked a good question. But he said I had three things going against me: I was Black, poor, and a girl. I eventually came to realize that I really liked those things.
Well, not being poor. But I really liked being Black. And I really liked being a girl. Having read your memoir, I suspect it captures the real you. There are f-bombs. There are candid critiques of the Trump presidency. What was your goal in writing the book? I wanted to present Ursula Burns in ordinary human terms. When you review my life, you might say it seems well planned.
But I was just going from one day to the next, keeping some basic beliefs and ideals in mind. It was nothing crazy. Along the way you describe situations where you were too blunt or too impatient or doing something dicey. How in the world did you manage to make it? We all make mistakes. We misspeak. We act impatient. I just kept pushing. First, we survived the Trump years without total revolution. People at least realize there are problems.
And third, I believe that people are fundamentally good. We just need to take better care of one another. You have 1 free article s left this month. You are reading your last free article for this month. Subscribe for unlimited access. on Leadership or related topics DiversityGender and Race. Adi Ignatius is the editor in chief of Harvard Business Review.
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