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Kai Ryssdal: Five years ago — for what at the time was a new segment called Conversations from the Corner Office — we talked to the then-CEO of Xerox, Anne Mulcahy. Mulcahy had her hands full the first couple of years on the job keeping Xerox out of bankruptcy. She’s since retired and been replaced by a woman who’s got an equally difficult challenge ahead of her: figuring out what comes after copying machines.
Today on Conversations from the Corner Office, Ursula Burns. For most of the 100 years it’s been around, Xerox has been synonymous with making and selling paper copiers. Ursula Burns is changing that. Nowadays, the company makes nearly half its revenue from back-office services, what it calls business processes. Which means my first question was: What’s a business process?
Ursula Burns: So if you’re in New York or New Jersey and you are traveling in your car and you use anything to get into Manhattan, you realize you have to pay a toll.
Ryssdal: Yes, you do. Big ones here!
Burns: Big ones, right? And so you can stay in a very, very, long line that actually requires you to take out cash. Or you get this little transponder thing that’s stuck in your car somewhere…
Ryssdal: Yeah, Fast Pass or Easy Pass.
Burns: Easy Pass. So the entire process to know that your car is connected to that transponder and the bill that you get — the entire closed-loop process to make sure that the state of New York and you settle each other between all the communication — is done by Xerox Corporation. That’s a business process. That’s what we do.
Ryssdal: All right, so there’s a branding question I have to ask you. You guys had, and I imagine you will say you have, one of the world’s great brands, right? You say Xerox and people know exactly what you guys do, which is… oh wait, it’s copy machines. How do you now change that brand image to let people know that you do Easy Pass and all that?
Burns: A lot of work, a lot of work and a lot of money. The best way to change it is to do it. Right? And then after a while you become it, and it’s easy. But we’re still in the, the best way to change it, is to do it.
Ryssdal: I wanted to touch on your management style a little bit. You have been called hard-charging. You have encouraged your employees to be more frank and impatient with each other, that’s your phrase, as a way to spur innovation and get this company where it needs to be. If you encourage frankness and impatience in a lot of companies, people just get cranky and crabby and it just doesn’t work out so well. Is there a risk in doing it that way?
Burns: Of course, of course. By the way, there is a fair amount of crankiness here.
Ryssdal: Yeah, even if people aren’t frank.
Burns: Yeah, that’s right. So crankiness is a human attribute that when people walk in the door of Xerox, they remain human. The best way to get the best out of people is to not force them to be something other than they naturally are. Now what do they have to be? They have to be respectful. You can’t be ridiculously disrespectful. You can’t, you know, use bad language. There’s certain things that you have to have, you have to have kind of reasonably good moods.
Burns: Besides that, you have to have a very strong opinion with some facts and data to stand it up, then you better walk into the room with something to say because otherwise you don’t really add a whole lot of value to the group.
Ryssdal: See I love that, but it takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude on managements’ part to be encouraging of that kind of idea.
Burns: I don’t know. What else do you do though?
Ryssdal: I don’t know.
Burns: It’s not clear to me how you would run the place if you said, “Have some great ideas, but don’t express them, don’t…”
Ryssdal: I’m with you. I think it’s interesting.
Burns: I think, you know, what I’ve found out in my career is that when I joined Xerox, the benefit I had…
Ryssdal: Which, we should say was 30-something years ago. You’ve been here your whole career.
Burns: Yeah, I’ve been here my entire career from senior year in college until this day, I worked nowhere else. So when I walked into this company, one of the things that really surprised me — this is in hindsight. I walked in I was 20 years old. I had a huge afro, I dressed the times and looked the times. I listened to the same music I listen to today, unfortunately, but The Temptations you know, I was a Motown person. I didn’t quite dress like business attire because I grew up on the lower East side of Manhattan and the closest thing I saw to business attire was the guy who ran Safeway. You know, he wore a tie. So all this stuff was new to me. When I walked in, Xerox didn’t say to me, “By the way, you know there’s something that you should really know, this hair thing isn’t going to work here. That attire thing, you’re going to have to figure out a way to change it.” They said nothing about it. It was kind of stunning. What they said was, “I’m going to give you an opportunity and if you can work hard enough and learn fast enough and really be driven and focused, you are going to go a long way.” And it was amazing! So I said, “Why would you ever leave this place?”
Ryssdal: So as I was sitting down coming up with a list of questions I wanted to talk to you about, obviously there was one that went — OK, let’s see, first African-American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, first woman-to-woman transition from Anne Mulcahy to you on a Fortune 500 company, and then I read this line in an interview where you were talking about this issue of you being black and in this leadership position and you said, “You know, I’ve been here three-and-a-half days and I’m on every list of impressive CEOs everywhere and, you know, award-winning that and I haven’t done anything.” Are people paying too much attention to that stuff?
Burns: I think less now than before, which is a little bit better. It is important to be an example because it does inspire and spur people who may not have been included before. But I also know that just because I was the first woman-to-woman in black, if that moved me up the list, I say to myself, “I’m really nervous here” because in day three I had done nothing in this new role that would have caused a movement to go up, except for actually be there. So I know how the world works and one thing being my young 52 is I know that when you are really, really high that there is a long way to go down. So I would prefer to be measured on the last two years of work in this role and the previous 29 years of work getting to this role than having gotten there, if you know what I mean. And that’s the whole thing I am trying to keep people’s focus on.
Ryssdal: Ursula Burns, thanks so much.
Burns: You’re welcome.
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