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In her new memoir, Ursula M Burns recounts blazing a trail to the top of Xerox

  • >>Dwight Garner, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-06-08 11:21:51 BdST

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FILE — Ursula Burns at the headquarters of Xerox in Norwalk, Conn, Jan 12, 2010. Burns, the first Black female chief executive of a Fortune 500 company, tells her story in a new memoir, “Where You Are Is Not Who You Are.” (Christopher Capozziello/The New York Times.)

There’s a thriving trade in what are sometimes called “executive book summaries.” These are CliffsNotes for the harried managerial class. New business books are crunched down to a few pages of bullet points, so supervisors can consume them on the run.

Ursula M Burns is the former chief executive of Xerox, a job she held from 2009 to 2016. She was the first Black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. When her new memoir, “Where You Are Is Not Who You Are,” gets executive-summarised, the bullet points will probably be obvious.

Burns gives credit for her success to her single mother, a hardworking Panamanian immigrant on welfare who raised three children in a tenement apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Burns prints lessons derived from her formidable mother throughout her memoir, and she isolates the six key takeaways on the final page.

Her mom’s advice is solid, and compact enough to print here in its entirety:

“Leave behind more than you take away.

“Don’t let the world happen to you. You happen to the world.

“God doesn’t like ugly.

“Take care of each other.

“Don’t do anything that wouldn’t make your mother proud.

“Where you are is not who you are (and remember that when you’re rich and famous).”

This is the PR-handout version of the lessons in Burns’ book. The real story is better. It’s grittier, more complicated. There’s an alternative set of takeaways from this book, ideas that are likely to mean a lot to other outsiders who are, painstakingly, trying to shinny up the greasy pole of elite corporate culture.

Lesson one: Prepare for culture shock. Unlike many other CEOs, Burns had no early familiarity with Nantucket or Jackson Hole or socially advantageous colleges. She attended Brooklyn Polytech, now known as Polytechnic Institute of New York University.

“Skiing? What was that?” she writes. “Tennis? Really? Swimming? No way. I’m convinced that the colleges that require a swimming test for graduation created that requirement to keep poor kids from applying.”

Burns still doesn’t know how to swim. And you won’t see her playing golf, even though it was a favourite activity of Vernon Jordan, one of her mentors. Once she became relatively wealthy, Burns writes, she still didn’t ski. She realised that she could enjoy life on her own terms.

Lesson two: Marry an older man. This one may be controversial, but it worked for her. Burns married a Xerox scientist 20 years her senior. He retired and took care of their children, enabling the author, who is one of life’s born workaholics, to focus on her company.

Lesson three: Affirmative action matters. Burns was helped by the social programs of the 1960s and 1970s, and could not have attended college without them. She writes, about the lessons of affirmative action: “I love the phrase ‘Talent is evenly distributed. Opportunity is not.’”

Lesson four: Don’t be too nice. “The Xerox family suffers from ‘terminal niceness,’” she once said in a speech to the company’s sales reps. She didn’t think anyone should be gratuitously mean. But too often, she writes, we fail to say what we mean, and at Xerox people sometimes “supported each other’s mediocrity.”

Lesson five: Let them see you sweat. Once she became CEO, Burns knew she had blind spots as a leader. She didn’t fear relying on the expertise of others.

Lesson six: Read these books: Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom,” Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” and WEB Du Bois’ collected essays. Why? Because early in her career, Jordon told her too, and he was right.

Lesson seven: You don’t have to be an extrovert. Burns was never the sort to linger too long in the hospitality tent, although she learned to come out of her shell. My favourite line in this book may be, “Most of my living is between my two ears, and always has been.”

Lesson eight (and here I am getting off track, but this book is not all boardroom talk): Don’t fly to Japan on a private plane. “When I became CEO,” Burns writes, “I rarely flew in our own plane to Japan because of an irrational fear that if the plane went down in the China Sea and it was only me and the pilots, the rescuers might not look as hard for survivors as they would if a big airliner went down.”

That’s advice I’ll keep in my back pocket.

Burns was at or near the top of Xerox during existentially trying times. As it struggled to move into the information economy and away from the tanklike copy machines (these have been on view at the Smithsonian Institution) that defined it for decades, the company nearly went bankrupt. Difficult choices — outsourcing jobs was one of these — had to be made. Burns’ mission: to find the upside amid a lot of downside.

There are plenty of other worthwhile things in “Where You Are Is Not Who You Are”: accounts of serving on the corporate boards of companies like American Express and Exxon Mobil; tangling with corporate activists like Carl Icahn; befriending and working with Barack Obama, after supporting Hillary Clinton during the 2008 election.

This book has its soft spots. It glides politely over a lot of material. It sometimes leans on resonant generalities. The author is an engineer at heart, not a writer, and her editor should have nixed the clichés that emerge, sometimes two to a sentence. (“I learned to put my cards on the table from the get-go.”)

If this book is not appreciably better-written than most business stories — it’s not a literary memoir — it nonetheless really reverberates. Burns has a new and important story to tell.

A lot of people looked out for the author over the years. That’s perhaps this book’s most moving lesson — that you can’t do it all by yourself. She learned to look out for others in turn.

You put down her book recalling the words of the critic Albert Murray, who wrote: “It is always open season on the truth, and there never was a time when one had to be white to take a shot at it.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company