For those who are unfamiliar with the name Ursula Burns, she’s a woman with a fascinating story. She started as a mechanical engineering intern in 1980 with Xerox Corporation and nearly 30 years later after leading several business teams, and acting as senior VP and President, is now Xerox’s Chairman and CEO.
Sure, she is the first African-American woman CEO to head a Fortune 500 company and also the first woman to succeed another woman as head of a Fortune 500 company (another remarkable story), but “who” she is and her very direct personality, candor and warmth as a CEO is what makes her so special, not this historical fact alone.
In many ways, she is not the “traditional CEO stereotype” or personality if there is such a thing. What comes through in watching her on-stage, from afar, from her profiles in the media and from meeting her in person, is her authenticity, her passion, her human way of approaching complex problems and her acute insights into what to do when things go south.
In a fireside chat with Forrester’s CEO George Colony at the Churchill Club in Palo Alto this week, she was spot on when she spoke of leadership and what it takes to be successful. “When you screw up, fix problems and fix them fast,” she said. “You have to be fearless, make decisions and understand the difference between urgent and important.” And, oh yeah, she adds, “you have to be nice.”
When George responded with, “what about Ellison and Jobs?” two renowned leaders in the world of technology who are not known as “playing by the nice” rules (the very two examples I was thinking when she made the statement), she said “I don’t care.” Go Ursula! Among other examples, she brought up her attitude about honor and respect and how her kids would only address George as Mr. Colony not George.
Ursula says that she spends about 50% of her time making sure people are “tuned” correctly. A consistent message from the best leaders is hiring well and inspiring those hires to execute strategically and consistently. Having a motivated and aligned team around you is key.
That brings us to innovation, where you can’t avoid but bringing up Apple. Says George of Jobs, “Jobs is once every 100 years. He’s an Edison. It’s not just about the fact that Apple knows how to innovate, but more importantly, how to streamline and simplify – taking the obvious and making it simple.”
George spoke of Forrester’s innovation network. In the value chain, there are different roles…you could look at Forrester as a broker, Apple as a transformer. Both are instrumental and key in the process. If the transformer happens to be outside the organization, then so be it and P&G has demonstrated that through in their own products and design efforts. The Innovation Network says we must ‘expand the network.’
Ursula agrees with the outsourcing model and that to try and be and do everything internally is very limiting. She says, “there’s more value on going outside the network for things you don’t do really well. The value chain of research has fundamentally changed. Partner or parish is the reality in the research world today.”
Access is what it’s about and you can get better ideas and people by partnering. She has a lot of respect for failing she noted, but added that she meant for her research team, not her engineers.
George shared his thoughts on cloud computing: “If you think it’s all about the cloud, you’re wrong citing the App-Internet is where things are heading. He has teams dedicated to this area, where they’re looking at the future of how powerful devices will work more seamlessly with powerful apps and what this will mean for productivity and innovation across multiple industries.
On future predictions, Ursula adds, “the big transformation in the future is not access. We have access to whatever we want and a lot of it.” Her fear is that we have so much access yet may not necessarily understand or know what we’re looking for. The real miracle will be in how we interface with all that data, a problem many of Silicon Valley’s developers are trying to solve in some way or another.
I see an emphasis on interface & manipulation of data again and again with the kinds of things that start-ups who pitch me on a regular basis are working on. Sadly, I also see a lot of start-ups working on services that focus more on access and data rather than solving the curation problem. (see Steven Rosenbaum’s new book Curation Nation).
Below is a four part video that covers George and Ursula’s Churchill fireside chat, one which felt remarkably like an informal living room discussion. The authenticity and insights to probe deeper into real world problems, not just business ones, also came out as they discussed education and the energy crisis.