podcast·3 min read

Skimm'd from the Couch: Ursula Burns

Jun 23, 2021

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Ursula Burns is one of the most notable business leaders in America. She ran Xerox from 2009 to 2016, and when she took the top job, she also became the first Black woman to run a Fortune 500 company. This week, Ursula sat down with us to share why leaders in 2021 can’t just be focused on creating shareholder value or increasing a stock price - they have to be focused on people. 

On How the Role of CEO is Changing

Ursula: In the past, we had a job. It was to increase total shareholder return or to increase shareholder value or to make the stock price the highest possible. Period. And it was always a struggle for me. And I tell you what, some people think I failed and they call me a failure because they said, "Oh my God, you didn't make the stock price [go up]." I struggled from my first day at work until the last day at work with this idea that we run a mechanical structure, that people are just a clog in the wheel.

What’s happening now with business leaders…society, governments, social organizations, and individual humans have said, "Wait a minute. This idea of increasing shareholder return as the ultimate measure of success of an enterprise is just wrong."

On Her Leadership Style

Ursula: I have a leadership style that is distinctly 'not the smartest guy in the room.' Come to a meeting with me, I say this all the time, "If you guys are gonna all be silent, I'll send you all home and take all your pay and I'll make all the decisions myself." It's important for me to have a team around, just like every team member has to have a team around them that makes them a complete business leader and person.

…. I'm fairly impatient and I believe that leadership teams have to kind of behave with each other like families. They have to literally trust each other. They have to give each other the benefit of the doubt. They literally have to call them out when they're slacking off or whatever the hell. This is not about the 'oracle on high' giving directions or about people taking a nap in the room. We are there together to lead, generally, what are pretty tough complex organizations. We can't do it alone.

…. I don't like coasting. I don’t like lack of opinions. If you don't have an opinion, I'm fine with that, but this idea that you have it and you tell me later, you say later, which is even the worst thing, "I always knew that wasn't going to work," that's a fireable offense.

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