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Hit The Ground Running

What Ursula Burns's Rise To Power Can Teach Us About Mentorship

The first black woman to lead a company the size of Xerox, Burns's journey from the projects to CEO shows us the value of the right mentors.

[Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

Not all mentors are created equal.

In the wake of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, a tsunami of leadership programs swept through businesses as mentorship was deemed the cure-all to the inequality issue.

But not all ordained or self-appointed mentors are going to help you. Some of the best leaders today already knew this secret and purposely sought out specific mentors who would take them to the next level and beyond.

Ursula Burns was raised by her single mother in the New York City housing projects. Though the odds were stacked against her chances of success, Burns understood the power of strategic mentorship, what it truly takes to become a successful leader.

Here are steps she took to find the right mentors that future leaders can learn from:

1. Find A Great Internship

While Burns was finishing up her bachelor’s degree at NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering, she was impressed with Xerox’s internship program, which encouraged her to get her master’s degree and later join the company full-time.

"I didn't think, when I walked into the company, that I would be the CEO," Burns told NPR. "I did expect to be successful, though. My mother raised us to think that if we worked hard, and if we put our end of the bargain in, it would work out OK for us."

2. Speak Up

"I learned from my mother that if you have a chance to speak, you should speak. If you have an opinion, you should make it be known," Burns said during the Makers: Women Who Make America documentary.

Burns recounted one such occasion that happened during a 1989 town-hall-like gathering. An employee asked Xerox leadership if the company’s diversity initiatives would lower hiring standards.

Burns recalled that Wayland Hicks, a senior executive, answered the question in a "nonchalant way," which surprised her. She raised her hand and asked Hicks why he would even entertain such a question. "From there we had a back-and-forth, and we had a back-and-forth that lasts to this day."

Wayland Hicks saw more in Burns than just an intelligent, career-driven woman. He saw the potential in her to become a future leader, and in 1990 he tapped her to become his executive assistant, which Burns considered a mentoring opportunity that helped her better understand how the business was run.

3. Gain And Retain People’s Trust

During her time with Hicks, Burns said she learned a lot about what the executives did and that the differences between her and them weren’t that significant.

As respect for her grew, she was soon transferred to her new mentor, then-CEO Paul Allaire, with whom she once again proved her worth and value. She continued to climb the ladder through the years, which caused ripples at the very highest levels.

Leading up to then-CEO Anne Mulcahy’s succession in 2009, Mulcahy took Burns under her wing in the early 2000s. "I wanted her to be a significant member of my team, and I also wanted to give her an early signal that I believed in her and trusted her with a big part of the operation," she wrote in HBR.

Mulcahy and Burns had regular conversations about her progress, and by the mid-2000s, she was running half the company. In 2009, Burns was appointed CEO. "By the time Ursula took over, I knew we’d succeeded, because I was needed less and less," Mulcahy wrote.

Successful leaders understand the power of mentors who they have strategically selected and developed relationships with. Burns continues to be a role model and gives back through her involvement in championing women through the STEM initiative and the Lean In movement.

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