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What the first Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company can teach us about being seen and heard…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold paths to success — of people (or things) you know!

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Did You Know? You don’t need a fancy title to go far!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? Ursula Burns was the executive assistant to Xerox’s CEO in 1991. 18 years later, Burns herself became Xerox’s CEO.

The year is 1981. Ursula Burns just joined Xerox, the pioneering copy machine manufacturing company. The year before, Burns had been part of Xerox’s summer internship program for new grads from underrepresented backgrounds.

Eight years into the job, Burns publicly disagreed with a senior executive in a meeting. The executive, Wayland Hicks, invited Burns to continue their conversation privately. Burns “figured that she was about to be reprimanded or fired.” 

Instead, Hicks found her perspective “refreshing” and asked to meet regularly with Burns. Less than a year later, Hicks offered her a role as his executive assistant.

“Why would I ever want to do that?” Burns, 31, asked herself in dissatisfaction at the idea of being a secretary. Then, she realized: “This could be her big break—an opportunity to rub shoulders with the company’s top dogs and see how a juggernaut such as Xerox was run.”

Fast forward one year and Burns was invited to sit in on regular senior management meetings with Paul A. Allaire, Xerox’s president. Month after month, Burns noticed the same pattern: Allaire would tell his deputies “No more hiring,” only to hire 1,000 people each month. Puzzled by the persistent inconsistency, Burns raised her hand. “I’m a little confused, Mr. Allaire,” she said. “If you keep saying, ‘No hiring,’ and we hire 1,000 people every month, who can say ‘No hiring’ and make it actually happen?”

Allaire said nothing but later called to see Burns for a private follow-up. For the second time, Burns thought was going to be fired. Instead, for the second time, Burns was asked to become an executive assistant—but, this time, to Xerox’s president, and shortly thereafter, CEO.

Following her year-long tenure as EA to the CEO, Burns saw her career skyrocket. She was tasked with leading progressively large and important teams and, five years later, became Vice President and General Manager at Xerox Headquarters. Another five years later, Burns was named Senior Vice President of the Business Group Operations. She was the first woman to hold this title at Xerox.

Burns was successful, but she was unhappy—namely due to Xerox’s “mountains of debt and plummeting stock” at the time. She wanted to quit. Having built a name for herself at the highest levels of the company, Burns received a call from a board member who urged, “If [you] left, others would take it as a sign that the company was unsalvageable.”

Burns decided to stay. The same year, she was named Senior Vice President of Corporate Strategic Services. By this time, “another long-time Xerox employee who had fought her way to the top of the company”, Anne M. Mulcahy, had ascended to the CEO role. Mulcahy was so “impressed by Burns’ outspoken confidence” that she became Burns’ mentor. Together, the two “slowly prepare[d] the ground for Burns’ own shot at leadership.”

Nine years later, Burns succeeded Mulcahy as CEO. Burn’s hard-earned promotion was also a record-breaker: She became the first Black woman in Fortune 500 history to become CEO. Since then, Burns has served on the board of directors for companies like American Express and led initiatives like the STEM program for the White House. She was named one of Forbes' Most Powerful Women in 2014.

So, the next time that you find yourself wondering how to stand out, remember Burns—who wouldn’t have made it from EA to CEO if she didn’t make herself seen, heard, and recognized by the most important people in the company.

Ursula Burns in 2019 via Timothy Lee Photographers / Columbia Engineering.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? It’s important to be seen and heard.

Having the EA title may not be glamorous, but it helped Burns go from invisible to visible. Speaking up may not feel comfortable, but it helped Burns go from silent to heard. In doing so, Burns was seen as the leader she could become rather than the assistant she was.

Feel like others aren’t seeing your full potential? Show your Three C’s by trying this:

(1) Make your Competence visible: Share your successes (and give credit where credit is due) by saying, “I’m excited to share that we ______ / surpassed our goal of ______ by ______%. Thank you to ______ and ______ for their hard work on ______ that made this possible!”

(2) Make your Commitment visible: Volunteer for projects or committees by saying, “I’d like to think that I can be an asset given that I did ______ at ______. What would it take for me to join?”

(3) Make your Compatibility visible: Encourage leaders to see you as a younger or earlier version of themselves by saying,  “Like you, I also ______. How did you think about the decision to go from _____ to _____?”

Nobody enjoys feeling underutilized or undervalued. Not every attempt to be seen and heard will pay off, but some will—and the ones that do could just catapult your career forward.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: As much as I still squirm each time I share my work online or in conversation, it pays off. Just two years ago, all of my speaking engagements were the result of me cold-emailing people. Now, all of my speaking engagements come looking for me. This could be you, no matter if you’re seeking speaking engagements or a promotion in a company.

Show your work—and show your worth!


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