March 01, 2010

Speaking Her Voice - C.E.O. Ursula M. Burns

One of the missions of the Women’s Collaborative Circle is to help women shed their fear of speaking their minds and having their voices heard. Yes, it’s true that in the last 40 years women in the United States have made some very real gains toward equality, including equality in the workplace.  However, it seems that many of us who were reared in more “traditional” environments still find ourselves unwittingly afraid to say what we want to say in the way we want to say it. That is why we here at the WCC got excited when we saw an article in The New York Times about Ursula M. Burns.

In case you haven't heard--and you very well may not have since, until recently, she's been keeping a low profile--Ms. Burns became chief executive officer of Xerox in July. As Adam Bryant of the Times writes, her ascension marks "the first time an African-American woman was named C.E.O. of a major American corporation, and the first time a woman succeeded another woman in the top job at a company of this size."  And if that part of the story alone wasn't inspiring enough, it was the way she rose up through the ranks of Xerox that really caught our attention!

Her precipitous rise began when she spoke rather frankly to her bosses--something quite out of the ordinary in Xerox's corporate culture, which Ms. Burns says is partly defined by "terminal niceness."  In 1989, she challenged her then boss Wayland Hicks, a senior executive, about giving credence to an insensitive question asked during a discussion about diversity initiatives. Hicks took notice and after getting to know her better, promoted her. In 1991 she spoke her mind again, but this time directly to Paul A. Allaire, Xerox’s president, during a meeting with top managers. Her reward? Another promotion.

But best of all, we love what she had to say about her style of communication, which over the years she has been advised to modify: "I can't try to say it in somebody else's voice. I have to say it in my voice." 

We couldn't agree more.

(Photo from ABC news story "Should Women Rule the World.")

Post written by Melissa Zeltser.

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