The very short list of CEOs of color in major American corporations will grow by one on July 1, 2009, when Ursula Burns, now the president of Xerox, will take over chief executive officer duties from Anne Mulcahy, who will remain as chairwoman of the board.
The choice of Burns “makes perfect sense, but she is the first black American female CEO in a Fortune 500 company, so it’s not a milestone to be ignored,” says Patrice Hall, vice president at ORC Worldwide, a human resource management consulting firm.
Burns’ ascension comes with Mulcahy’s support. “For the better part of the past decade, [Burns] has been at my side helping to turn Xerox around,” Mulcahy said as she made the announcement May 21 at a company shareholder meeting in Norwalk, Conn. “Ursula takes on the leadership role the old-fashioned way,” Mulcahy added. “She has earned it.”
Like Mulcahy, Burns has spent most of her career at Xerox. Burns joined the office equipment manufacturing company in 1980 as a summer intern with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Columbia University. She moved into product development and planning and led several business teams. In 2000, she became senior vice president, corporate strategic services, and later she directed the company’s global research as well as product development, marketing and delivery. In April 2007 she became president.
“The fact that a female CEO will be succeeded by a female CEO of a major corporation has to be big news,” said Erroll B. Davis, Jr., the former longtime CEO of Alliant Energy who is now chancellor of the University System of Georgia.
“I think it says important things about Xerox as an organization, adds Hall, who leads ORC’s global equality, diversity and inclusion practice. “In order for Burns to be the logical choice, so much had to precede her being named: a very focused, strict and effective process of succession planning, casting the right kinds of broad nets for talent and creating the right kind of environment … to succeed. This is a company that has obviously been doing a whole lot right.”
Diversity consultant Judith L. Turnock of Hunter Management Group stresses the importance of Mulcahy’s role in elevating Burns. “Evaluated by someone who has no problem seeing beyond race and gender, she gets a fair hearing, the hearing everyone deserves. With her record, the choice should be inevitable, and now it has actually happened.”
Mulcahy joined Xerox in 1976, working as a field sales representative before moving into management. From 1992 to 1995, she was vice president of human resources, responsible for compensation, benefits, human resource strategy, labor relations, management development and employee training. Her later responsibilities included customer operations in Central and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and China.
Named corporate senior vice president in 1998, she became president in 2000, CEO in 2001 and chairwoman in 2002.
Taking note that five days after Xerox picked Burns to succeed Mulcahy, President Barack Obama nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor, a Hispanic woman, to the U.S. Supreme Court, Hall observed, “We have come a long a way [in this country]. We’ve got a long way to go but … we are beginning to outstrip other developed countries in terms of equality and inclusion practices, and that’s something to be very proud of.”
“Burns’ promotion to the top spot at Xerox confirms what thoughtful experts have long predicted,” says Turnock. “As more and more non-white males bring records as star performers, the ducks will eventually line up for more to be selected as CEOs.”