Steve and I had the pleasure of attending a CES Keynote address featuring Ursula Burns (CEO of Xerox), Alan Mullay (CEO/President of Ford Motor Co), and John Stratton (President of Verizon Enterprise Solutions). The keynote was an eye opening discussion regarding leadership, education, failure, company development, product design, innovation, and political involvement. I will begin this series of three posts with Ursula Burns’ contributions. That is just a small portion of what Ursula Burns brought to the keynote panel at CES 2012, the global stage of innovation.
Of the three CEOs, Ursula Burns really stood out. In her opinion, the most important element of creating a successful business and creating an innovative America is the educational system of America. She stressed that science, technology, engineering, and math must be a necessity. Governmental and company policy should enable the educational system. If governments and companies do not invest in the system, we cannot complain about the results. When considering her point, every industry is fundamentally dependent upon a foundation of science and engineering systems. At a fundamental level, the American educational system is still doing well, a world-class example. She cautioned that changes would need to be made. The lack of financial solvency, a current issue with several educational systems, will cause America to drop off the map as a world leader in educational output. Finally, Ursula Burns stated, which comes of no surprise, that we are a society built on the fabric of Hollywood glamour and sports stardom riches. That has to change in order to ensure the future of the educational system.
Failure and judgment were prevalent themes in her discussion. In her remarks, we all mess up every day. As employees, we make mistakes. As spouses, we make mistakes. As friends, we make mistakes. Mistakes are an expectation, understanding that mistakes and failures happen. From a business prospective, the concerning point should not be failure in product design, product development, or release date. Those that make mistakes can be mentored. The concerning point should be an employee’s failure in judgment. Poor judgment costs businesses millions of lost productivity and therefore revenues.
Every CEO talks of leadership. Ursula Burns was no different. As a CEO, she stated that her job was to sell to employees the mission and objectives of the company. This is not completed by sitting in meetings all day, being an absent-minded executive, or dismissing employee requests. A CEO succeeds as a leader by being present and active in the business process, whether that be in the financial, research, or marketing division of the company. She also touched on the concept of acquisitions. Most times, outside companies often have a different mindset, a different perspective on a product or process. Therefore, acquisitions of companies (Xerox bought 25 companies in 2011) can transform your thinking. That thinking needs to be incorporated into the climate and culture of the business environment. Her selling point that ended this discussion surrounded around the decision “to move on.” As a leader, it is imperative that you know when it is time to move forward without having produced the “perfect” product. More technology and innovation will surface as the product lives in the market. Knowing that improvements will happen in Phase 2 of product design and development is a necessity for leaders.
Ursula Burns runs a major American business focused on business processes and outsourcing. She resurrected a company facing financial distress in late 2000 and turned Xerox around in less than 5 years. Her refusal to cut the research and design funding (nearly $1 billion) speaks to her commitment to innovation, science, technology, and engineering. It was truly a privilege to hear her speak at CES 2012.