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Copying Xerox

Posted by on May 29, 2009 at 8:47 pm

Ursula Burns of XeroxUrsula Burns

Three cheers for Xerox and its Board of Directors. On July 1, Xerox President Ursula Burns will take over as the company’s CEO replacing Anne Mulcahy, who will become chairman. This action is monumental on a number of levels, and it provides a teaching moment for many corporate boards, executives and managers.

First, Burns becomes the first African American woman to run a large global company, with sales of nearly $18 billion last year. Second, it represents the first time that a woman CEO is being replaced by another woman CEO at a large company. Third, this action is the result of a corporate culture at Xerox that has for decades promoted the notion of giving every employee—regardless of race or gender–an opportunity to succeed. It is this trait in particular that other companies should truly seek to copy.

Ursula Burns was named CEO because she earned it. And most importantly, she was given the chance to earn it over the course of her 29-year career at Xerox. Working her way up the ranks as a mechanical engineer, she was afforded opportunities to succeed–and fail–as she took on greater management responsibilities.

Companies far too often identify a relatively small subset of employees to groom for possible advancement. These employees usually get exclusive and subtle opportunities to advance (e.g., face-time with the boss at sporting events or golf outings), and some not-so-subtle (e.g., accolades and promotions).

In some cases, these employees are identified because they are a more comfortable facsimile of their managers. As this week’s Business Week’s cover story (June 8th) points out, less than 16 percent of corporate officers are women among Fortune 500 companies, despite representing nearly 60% of the workforce. (Comparatively, one third of executives at Xerox are women, and 22 percent are minorities).

Men promoting men are not always to blame. Ironically, women already on the corporate ladder are sometimes hesitant to reach back to help another woman grab the next rung. I have witnessed this phenomenon myself, which has also been borne out in a number of studies in recent years. So outgoing Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy herself –who helped restore profitability to Xerox with a focus on innovation– deserves a lot of credit for giving Burns a chance to grow and advance within the company.

Dick Harrington, retired CEO of Thompson Corporation, and my former boss –serves on the Xerox Board of Directors and always spoke very highly of Mulcahy and Burns.

In the end, women or minorities should not be promoted simply because of their gender or race. They should be allowed to advance because they are given the same opportunities for development and growth, and succeed. Companies increase their own chances for success if they seek to mine and develop talent from every employee. Otherwise, a company and its shareholders will miss out on untapped resources — and will not reap the benefits of an Anne Mulcahy or an Ursula Burns.