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Leaders, Don’t Buy The Hype

The new C.E.O of Xerox, Ursula Burns, is a record setter. She is the first African-American woman to become the C.E.O. of a major American corporation. Burns’ accomplishment has earned her generous applause and plenty of praise. However, Burns knows she can’t measure success by the weight of her accolades. In this New York Times article, Burns explores her new role and the challenges she faces when dealing with an overdose of praise

Leaders can learn several important lessons from Burns’ experiences.

First, leaders should always be wary of accolades and recognition—especially early on in one’s tenure.  Not that accolades are inherently inappropriate or destructive in nature, but leaders can easily become distracted or even completely derailed if they buy into the hype of their new notoriety. Believing too much in one’s own “success” can truly lead to real failure.  Fortunately, the empty praise was disquieting for Burns and she took steps to challenge the existing culture in order to put Xerox on more secure financial footing.

Second, coalitions are crucial for success. Burns did not try to fundamentally alter the “family” culture of Xerox.  Rather, she built upon the concept of the existing culture and pushed for more candid and frank feedback—like a “real” family.   By building upon the established culture, Burns can build her coalition of support more readily than forcing a new culture upon the organization—saving valuable time and resources.

Burns also shows us that we should never dismiss unique opportunities for growth.  Earlier in her career, she could have shunned the offer to become an executive assistant, believing that it would stall her career path.  However, taking these roles proved to be an ideal platform for Burns to learn from and provide pointed feedback to the leadership at Xerox.  These experiences set the stage for Burns to establish influence and credibility, which ultimately prepared her job as C.E.O..

Burns can teach leaders the following:

  • Don’t believe the hype
  • In order to lead change, your coalition must be strong—build on common ground
  • Don’t shy away from opportunities to influence others , grow, and gain credibility

Ursula Burns wants to do more the change the culture at Xerox. By staying grounded, maintaining her coalition, and preserving her credibility she will be well equipped to move her agenda forward and tackle challenges.

Nathan Sheranian is a first year MILR, emphasizing in human resources and organizations, at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

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