The wisdom of Ursula Burns

March 19, 2013

Today was a marathon of women's events, to the extent that I am now unwinding with a gin and tonic. This morning I went to New Tech City's 'How Tech is Changing the Way Women Work' event in downtown Manhattan. Really interesting stuff featuring some great women, two of whom I knew personally, three of whom I didn't. You can watch it here. The place was packed.

From there it was off through a freezing downpour to the Catalyst annual conference at the Waldorf Astoria. And from now on this becomes a post about keynote speaker and CEO of Xerox Ursula Burns. It was worth going just for Burns. For those who don't know, she worked at Xerox for 30 years before being appointed CEO in 2009. She's the first female African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She was wonderfully candid in the Q&A session with Catalyst CEO Ilene Lang. (To get a sense of her personality, you can hear Burns in her own words in these short videos at

Here are some of the things she said that really jumped out at me and can potentially be helpful for all of us.

  • She said her management team at Xerox was "insanely mixed up - it's not just race and gender but people with differences in background and language skills," all of which she said amounted to a great thing for the company.
  • On the inevitable "how did you cope with work and family?" question, Burns said she had a lot of help (including an older husband, of which more in a minute), from neighbors to her sister. It was a hotchpotch of people, and sometimes chaotic, but basically it worked.
  • That brings me to work/life balance. In Burns's view, there's no such thing as having balance all at once. In other words when you are at the stage of life where you have a crazy job and young kids, you have no balance. She says we should look at balance as something that happens over a long lifetime, and take the pressure off ourselves to try to achieve it NOW.
  • On trying to make it to all your children's events, Burns was equally blunt: forget it. She said that she never doubted her single mother loved her, "but she didn't make 90 percent of my stuff". She says parents shouldn't feel they have to try, and that "a lot of it's boring" anyway. I told you she was blunt.
  • Maybe that decision came out of a particular trip to the doctor's she told us about. At one point she was at her doctor's, who knew the whole family, and he told her that sure, everything was great, her husband was happy, her kids were happy, she had this great was all great, except "you're gonna be dead." That was her tipoff that she was trying to do way too much. 
  • Part of her advice to young women was, half-jokingly, to marry an older man. Her husband is 20 years older than her, and had "done that growing up stuff" by the time they got hitched. Just as her job was getting really nuts, he retired, so her kids had a parent who could be there a lot even as she traveled.
  • "Boards are the tightest friggin' club in the world," she says. Getting on a board is all about networking.
  • On mentorship and sponsorship, Burns says men and women need both, but women need them more. She said Henry Kissinger is now a kind of sponsor of hers and asks her to events where she meets people she would simply never meet otherwise. She added, "it's important to have them and to be them."
  • Even Ursula Burns has been known to suffer from 'imposter syndrome'. This is when women are given some kind of compliment on their skills and immediately say to themselves, "I'm not THAT great." Burns said what we all know. Many guys would just accept the compliment - and believe it. She, on the other hand, finds herself wondering whether she deserves it.

    It was a funny and inspiring talk. Do check out those Makers videos for more on Ursula Burns. I'd love to talk to her for the show one day.