June 2, 2009

Hail to the Chief-ess

I’m reminiscing here…

When I joined Xerox in the late 80s, the average tenure of Xerox employees was a whopping 17 years (yes, average), and let me tell you, the “average” executive there wasn’t female, and he certainly wasn’t black. I remember hearing about Ursula Burns – a lot. Everyone knew of her, because (oooh!) a black woman had become the VP of something or other. This is before Obamania, before Condoleezza Rice, before Clarence Thomas. I distinctly remember hearing that she used to be a secretary (she wasn’t). She was, in fact, an Ivy Leaguer with a BS and MS under her belt. Minor detail.

Settle down. This isn’t about affirmative action.

I left Xerox in the mid-90s for a “pre-IPO” company, which was the thing to do in those days. At the time, I was fascinated by Carly Fiorina, the newly minted head of Lucent. She was tough, serious, and unbendable. With her short designer hair, controlled smile, and executive suits, she embodied what corporate America wanted from female executives – a man with boobs. Fortune magazine named her the "most powerful woman in business" in their inaugural listing, and a year later she went on to head HP as the first female chief of a Fortune 100 company. Carly staged herself as a superstar CEO starring in HP’s ads and several business magazine covers. She wanted to be to HP what Lou Gerstner had been to IBM. She promised to change HP into an “e-services” company.

Two years later, Xerox announced Anne Mulcahy as its CEO, prompting comparisons to Fiorina. A relative unknown, Mulcahy was thrown into the scene amid major turmoil at the company. With her informal soft blond hair, motherly looks, and a low profile on the street, she didn’t invoke too much confidence. Xerox’s stock dropped 15% on the day of her announcement, and the little news about her generally remained skeptical. I remember reading an article that mentioned she cried at board meetings. Let me repeat, she cried at board meetings! Do you think John Chambers cried at board meetings?! I had firmly decided that Ms. Goldilocks would come nowhere near comparisons with my favorite chief-ess at HP. End of discussion!

As the street became more familiar with Mulcahy, the news started trickling out more regularly. Turns out the employees loved her (I talked to them myself). Her flexible inclusive style (dare I say “feminine style”) brought all layers of the organization together, and she wasn’t afraid to admit errors. Fiorina had also managed to keep herself in the headlines, much to her detriment. Her employees were mostly skeptical of her, some despised her. She was divisive and single-minded, and failed to build consensus. She pushed HP to acquire Compaq in a much contested deal (so much for an e-services company), while Mulcahy turned Xerox around from the brink of bankruptcy to a highly profitable operation.

Fiorina was eventually booted out. Mulcahy completed the turnaround at Xerox, and kept Ursula Burns as her successor. Burns will take the reigns at Xerox on July 1st as the first black female CEO of a major corporation, and in the first female-to-female executive transfer in the history of any large US corporation (hats off!). She has also kept a low profile, but I doubt that will be the case for too long. Powerful black women have a hard time staying out of the limelight, whether or not they like it.

It’s hard to determine what Burns plans to do with Xerox. She is taking over a stable organization and will probably decide to build her own legacy. Maybe she will reduce Xerox’s dependency on its commoditized product line, and make a major push to increase services. Maybe she will take advantage of the economic downturn to acquire complementary businesses. But I have a feeling whatever she does, she won’t be crying at board meetings.


  1. Kat, A terrific, insightful read. Pity more blogs weren't as thoughtful and considered as yours. Keep blogging. Looking forward to the next instalment.

  2. Brilliant piece, particularly the highlight about crying at meetings. Yes, crying is that bad thing that we women do when we move up the ranks and we allow our frustration level to reach the tear ducts in our eyes that we pad in tightly. I remember attending my first "executive meeting" and thinking that I would be able to take this world by storm, quickly noticing that my mouth had gotten the better of me at my first meeting. I quickly noted, demeanor and tenor for the meetings and while I have developed much more skills at pointing out logic before retreiving to the emotional world, I often ask myself about the balance of the two when you are the only woman sitting in a lunch meeting, oh and you happen to be a minority who doesn't believe in suits and wouldn't know how to conform if I tried.

    I love this blog!

  3. I have to say that during my professional career I have worked for several female bosses; and never really enjoyed their management styles and how they ran a team - however having meet and worked for both Mulcahy and Burns I have to say that they are exceptional characters. Nice write-up