to reinstate its quarterly dividend payout to shareholders for the first time in more than six years. That same year, Burns was also elected to Xerox’s board of directors, a clear sign she was the heir apparent to the chief executive.
In July 2009, she achieved a business milestone: Burns, 51, became the first African American woman to hold the position of CEO at an S&P 100 corporation, a $17.8 billion giant with operations in more than 160 countries and a payroll of 57,000 employees. What made her appointment even more momentous is the transition represented the first time a female executive was replaced by another woman at the highest corporate level.
Now, her focus is building the company into an indomitable force in the $132 billion business technology market through a combination of acquisition and organic growth. And judging by her latest moves, there’s no question that Burns will demonstrate why she is one of the most powerful CEOs on the planet.
Making All the Right Connections
For someone who didn’t plan for such ascension, Burns’ timing has been impeccable. Several factors—including her technical expertise—helped position Burns, says Katherine Giscombe, vice president of Women of Color Research for Catalyst, an advocacy organization for the advancement of women in business. “Her mechanical engineering background has been key,” she maintains. “This type of technical degree opens the door to a broader set of career opportunities.”
Burns agrees. “One of the things that Xerox taught me was that it was really important to be great at something, for two reasons,” she explains. “People have to actually know that you can do something; you earn the position of being a generalist by being a really good specialist, an individual contributor. The other is the amount of things that get thrown at you in a day when you lead an organization, you have to have a place that you can rest a bit. And for me it happens to be in engineering and in labs.”
Giscombe also notes the number of roles Burns played within the organization provided her with an intimate understanding of Xerox’s broad range of business operations. Mulcahy’s mentorship proved vital to her rise as well. Says Ancella B. Livers, executive director of the Institute for Leadership Development & Research at The Executive Leadership Council: “Ursula had a great strategic