5 Leadership lessons from Ursula Burns

Eliga Services attended London Tech Week to hear former CEO of Xerox, Ursula Burns speak about her book and experience.


Female leaders often court the most controversy, thanks to differing views on what it means to be a feminist. One only has to look at Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In to understand how heated the conversation can become, particularly when it comes to advice, which precludes underrepresented communities or mothers who are single. With so many conflicting views about women’s roles in the private and public domain, it was a relief to hear Ursula Burns speak so candidly at London Tech Week.

Burns talked about embedded biases in innovation and more broadly about her time at Xerox between 2009-2016. She earned a unique place in US history as the first African American female CEO of one of America’s top 500 companies, a title she holds somewhat reluctantly. She maintains that she isn’t special per se. However, her unwillingness to conform or ‘contort’ herself to others is exceptional.


Confronting biases

When speaking of female leadership, we must first address the biases that exist in publishing. According to Pacific Standard, researchers at McGill University discovered an overwhelming gender bias in New York Times’ book reviews. In 2017, they ‘found that two-thirds of reviewed books were written by men, and that reviewed books tended to reflect gender stereotypes, an effect the researchers call topic bias.’ This occurs when women are more likely to receive reviews about traditionally feminine topics.

Furthermore, HBR notes that black employees ‘still face obstacles to advancement that other minorities and white women don’t. They are less likely than their white peers to be hired, developed, and promoted. With this research in mind, it’s vital that we champion writing from inspiring female leaders like Ursula Burns with her book, Who You Are is Not Where You Are: A Memoir as well as Carla A. Harris and Kenya Hunt.



What we learned from Ursula Burns’ talk…

Burns’ considerable experience in engineering and digital transformations makes her advice most relevant to tech teams. She currently holds 10 board and advisor roles, including Board Member at Uber, Member of the Board of Directors at Ford Foundation, and Member of the Board of Directors at ExxonMobil. Here are 5 leadership takeaways:


1. Stay humble; perspective is everything

When asked how her mother influenced the leader she became, she explained that her mother was her foundation. It might have been easy for Burns to lose her way, except for her mother’s simple, yet powerful adage, ‘Where you are is not who you are.’

The saying applies to success and failure. We are no more defined by our failures than we are by our accomplishments. Ultimately, Burns concludes it is important to leave behind more than you take, another one of her mother’s favourite sayings.


2. Study engineering

Burns owes a great deal of her success to studying engineering. She explained that the discipline saved her, describing it as a ‘transformative field, particularly if you are a woman.’

Engineering prepared her for leadership. It presents students with problems or opportunities. In every problem, there is an answer, discovered in an iterative process. Reiteration is key. Engineering is an excellent foundation for leadership, starting with a ‘possibilities mindset’. With its process-focused, documented, automated approach to problems, engineers are forever improving processes, much like leaders.


3. Address embedded biases

When asked how to create more inclusive cultures, Burns replied, ‘At the core of it, we are all people.’ We must look beyond our individual experiences. This will help us obtain a more inclusive outcome for products and services.

By confronting our conflict potential and personality differences, we can begin to address embedded biases. The people who design algorithms are inherently biased. While we are all biased by experience, this is not necessarily the issue. Doing nothing about these biases is the problem.

Facial recognition software is just one example of an embedded bias. Fortunately, tech teams are becoming more aware of these issues and are taking steps to build diverse and more inclusive user experiences.


4. A diversity of voices is the goal

To combat embedded biases, we must create a diversity of voices. According to Burns, Uber, and Ford nail this. She warned that some companies are at risk of their efforts becoming mere window dressings. Quotas help us achieve a more diverse workplace when leaders or organisations fail to do the ‘right thing’. They’re needed when it takes too long for leaders to effect real, meaningful change.

With the saying, ‘Talent is evenly distributed. Opportunity is not’ guiding her, Burns is a believer in affirmative action. She benefited from the social programs of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, stating that she would not have been able to go to college without these programs.


5. Be comfortable in your own skin

One of Burns greatest strengths was her ability to be comfortable in her own skin. She resisted the temptation to conform to other leaders’ opinions or expectations. Burns remembered that the biggest gap between her and the other CEOs was golf. She didn’t have a country club membership. She had no interest in these activities as she felt that it took hours out of the day and preferred to be with her family. While some leaders might be tempted to uphold company culture, Burns teaches us that being comfortable in our own skin (and our individual experience) can be our greatest asset.



While Mark Cuban, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk or Richard Branson inspire many of the thought leadership pieces we’ve seen circulating the web, it’s clear we need a wider and more inclusive range of voices to inspire the next generation of leaders. Ursula Burns’ memoir is an excellent starting point, but there’s still so much to be done…


Eliga Services recognises that each of us has a part to play in creating a diverse, yet inclusive environment. By promoting community-led products, services and leadership, our aim is to keep diversity and inclusion at the forefront of our approach.