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Lessons Learned From Ursula Burns and Ann Mulcahy

courage power speak up Feb 10, 2021

Lessons Learned From Ursula Burns and Ann Mulcahy

Something extraordinary happened at Xerox between 2001 and 2009, prior to the only woman to woman CEO changing of the guard in a large Fortune 500 company. For almost a decade, Ann Mulcahy was a fierce ally and supporter of Ursula Burns, so there would be a smooth transition when Ursula became CEO in 2009. In Mulcahy’s HBR article How I Did It: Xerox’s Former CEO on Why Succession Shouldn’t Be a Horse Race, she was not threatened by the brilliant, outspoken, and power of Burns. Mulcahy recognized Burn’s strengths, challenged her to improve her weaknesses and championed her for almost a decade until Burns eventually replaced her as CEO. 

What can we learn from these two compassionate and powerful women, and how can we use this wisdom to empower more female leaders, emerging leaders and male allies, especially those who sit on the margins?

Quite a lot, but here are two important things to ponder and hopefully take action on:

  1. Have the courage to concede or transfer power.
    Whether you’re a manager, in a chief of staff role or heading for CEO, this is a tough one. But, when we put aside ego and dedicate ourselves to the best person for the job for the betterment of the company, and in turn dedicate ourselves to what our black belt is and where we are most needed, we can work together in our highest capacity. True allyship is advocating for the best person for the job, even if it means we may be displaced. Have the courage to concede, and surrender to where you are most needed next.
  2. Speak up.
    Ursula Burns self proclaims that is was not soft spoken when it came to her opinion. Even Mulcahy wrote, when Burns was in her 30’s, the senior leadership at Xerox would always ask ‘Who is that?’ in meetings. They soon learned who she was because, as Burns said: "I told them."

Ursula Burns was the only black woman to be named CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and this is after being told as a young person, "You have three strikes against you. You’re female, you’re poor and you’re black." Ursula Burns was not defined by how she grew up, by a single mother who did odd jobs to support her, nor by what others said. Ursula’s mother always told her that "You are not defined by where you come from." From earning honors at the Polytechnic Institute of New York and later a M.S. from Columbia to becoming the CEO of Xerox and not to mention being named one of the 22 most powerful women in the world by Forbes, we can all learn many important lessons from her, but here’s a big one I’d like to invite you to consider... 

You get to decide on your path, the voice you have in the world, and the impact you commit your life’s work to. Align with those who recognize your value and who will be allies, even if it means that they may someday concede and transfer power because it’s the right thing to do. We too can commit to being courageous allies, so we can be an example in this powerful process of change as well.

Are you on the precipice of something grand? 

Let’s do this 2021, together! I’m here to help,


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P.s. Know three like-minded female leaders or male allies this will serve? Please do share!

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