Fitting in at Xerox: Ursula Burns talks to Women at the Top

The perception that women must be seen to be “one of the guys” in order to do well in the workplace is a common one.

It is a view partly shared by Michael Treschow, the chairman of Unilever, who told me some time ago that the dynamics of male and female upbringing can determine why women at some companies feel excluded from taking their place at the table.

From early boyhood, he said, men are trained to work in matching teams, while girls and women are not. Girls have best friends; boys have gangs. Being part of a group is culturally instilled in boys from their school days, and companies have tended to adopt similar cultures. So learning to be part of this male group culture is sometimes seen as essential for women who want to do well and get promoted.

This is not a view shared by Ursula Burns, chief executive of Xerox, who I recently interviewed for the FT’s upcoming ranking of the top 50 women in world business.

Burns has worked at Xerox since her first day as a summer intern in 1980. In recounting her early experiences, she offers a different lesson for companies striving to be more inclusive.

“When I walked in the door as an intern, I was fairly outspoken, [with] strong opinions – sometimes wrong and strong. I had the look and banter of someone from New York City.”

“Today, I still speak as fast as hell and have very distinct views about how the world should go and grow. I don’t play golf. I like certain kinds of music. I dress and look a certain way.”

Burns, who is a rare African-American at the helm of a big US company, recalls that during her 30 years at Xerox, she has never been pressurised to change in order to fit in. “I was never told: ‘in order for you to do A you must change B’. They never asked me to compromise on things that were too hard to change because they made me the person I was”, she says.

“No one ever said, ‘You are just too urban, too black, or too female’. There was never a conversation about it. Never.”

Perhaps the easiest way to ensure the most talented people are comfortable within the workplace is to be agnostic on what kind of person makes a “company man” – or woman.

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