Xerox CEO’s career advice: Listen to your mom

August 16, 2011, 6:55 PM UTC

Ursula Burns

When Ursula Burns went to Washington and met with President Obama last Friday, at least two people in the room personified her notion of what leads to great success: “The biggest differentiator is not how you are born,” says the Chairman and CEO of Xerox . “It’s how you’re influenced throughout your life.”

Barack Obama had a remarkable single mother to influence him. As did Burns, who grew up on New York’s gritty Lower East Side and was guided, she says, by her mother who advised:

“Where you are today is not who you are,” Olga Burns told her daughter, urging young Ursula not to be defined by her surroundings.

“Success is not about money. It’s not about power. It’s about leaving.” Burns explains: “She would always say that you have to leave the place — any place you are — a little bit better than you came in.”

“And the third thing she always said is that there are a lot of things that can happen to you, but there are a whole bunch of things that you can happen to. So make sure that you happen to the right things.”

What happened to Burns is that her mom was more than determined—“desperate,” says Burns—to make sure that her three kids were well-educated. With savings from a child-care service that she ran out of their tenement apartment, she sent Ursula to Catholic school and then Polytechnic Institute of NYU and Columbia University. Ursula got her Masters in mechanical engineering. She started at Xerox as an intern in the summer of 1980, rose through product development and manufacturing, and resisted temptations to leave when the company was on the brink of bankruptcy just over a decade ago.

Burns, 51, and Anne Mulcahy, her predecessor as CEO, rescued Xerox by pairing their respective talents, engineering and sales, and their complimentary leadership styles. Burns is fiercely opinionated and impatient. And while she has acquiesced occasionally—like when she accepted a chief of staff job she thought would be too easy for her—she says she’s guided by advice she got from Mulcahy. “You cannot be somebody else and lead,” Mulcahy told Burns when she promoted her to chief executive in the first woman-to-woman CEO handoff in the history of the Fortune 500.

In other words, says Burns: “Be who you are.”

Defining herself today, she says, “I’m Ursula Burns, mother of two and wife of a great guy. I happen to be the CEO of Xerox Corporation and the chairman of the board.” She is also on the American Express board and No. 9 on the Fortune Most Powerful Women list.

And with that high-level corporate platform, Burns can work on the cause that her late mother held dear: education. President Obama chose Burns as one of the leaders of the White House national program on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and she is involved in various other education programs.

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