In 2009, Ursula Burns became the first African-American woman CEO to head a Fortune 500 company. The account of her rise to the positions of CEO and eventually Chairwoman of Xerox Corporation is a real corporate rags to riches story.
Hard Work, Flexibility, and Seeing the Potential
In 1980, Burns began working for Xerox as a mechanical engineering summer intern. After completing her master’s degree a year later, she permanently joined the company in an entry level administrative position she described as the “lowest of the low” and one she wasn’t even fully qualified for. For almost ten years, Burns slowly made her way up the corporate ladder, jumping at every opportunity for growth and development that came her way.
Finally, in January 1990, the biggest break of her career came when Wayland Hicks, then a senior executive, offered her a job as his executive assistant. Several months later, she became executive assistant to then CEO, Paul Allaire. Though these positions may have seemed belittling on the surface, they turned into mentoring opportunities that helped Burns better understand what executives did and how the business was run. She immediately put those lessons to practice, and ten years later, she was named Senior Vice President, of Corporate Strategic Services, heading up manufacturing and supply chain operations. She also began working closely with future female CEO, Anne Mulcahy.
Throughout her career at Xerox, Burns held an assortment of roles and leadership positions spanning several departments, including corporate services, manufacturing and product development. She was eventually named President in 2007, working under Chief Executive Officer in 2009, and Chairman in 2010.
Your Best Leaders Won’t Just Fall from the Sky
In the business world Burn’s story is an exception to the rule- but the thing that makes it an exception actually has little to do with her gender and the color of her skin. Behind the sensational headlines is the fact that her climb up the corporate ladder was mostly a long, self-motivated, and self-guided process, and if she hadn’t been able and willing to see the learning potential in each of her roles at Xerox (even the non-glamorous ones), perhaps she never would have gone as far as she did.
The truth is that there are very few charismatic champions who will independently emerge from the morass of a corporate hierarchy to provide the direction, guidance, and motivation that the company desperately needs. The majority of the best and brightest potential leaders won’t just suddenly appear out of nowhere right when you need them. On the other hand, most firms have access to a pool of current employees with amazing innate skills and strengths, who can certainly become the kind of leaders that firms require- but only if they are given the knowledge, tools, opportunities, and encouragement to do so.
As I have mentioned here previously, all too often the people placed into leadership positions within a firm are not suited to their roles. When this happens, it is typically the outcome of faulty career advancement policies, inadequate succession planning, and ineffective methods for properly identifying and developing leadership potential.
But, it doesn’t have to be this way. In my next article, I’ll identify several strategies that senior leadership can use to single out and develop high-potential employees and future leaders right from the beginning.