Ursula Burns has never hesitated to speak her mind. She rose to the top job at Xerox—where she served for seven years as the first and only black woman ever to head a Fortune 500 company—by speaking her mind. And she is at it again, insisting that corporate boards get serious about their lack of racial diversity.
Ellen McGirt and I interviewed Burns for our podcast Leadership Next (Apple/Spotify). She was on fire—even suggesting quotas may be needed to solve the problem. I’ve known Burns for a long time, and told her my recollection was she had always opposed quotas. Her response:
“I’m still not high on the notion of quotas. But I think we may have earned our comeuppance. I actually was under the impression that when you know you have a challenge, that you have a gap, you do some studies, you put your best minds to it, and most of the time, business solves problems…. What has happened, though, is that we have failed, across the board. And every year we say, oh my God, it’s a problem, we still haven’t met it…So now, what else do you do? You bring other forces to bear.”
Quotas, she said, are the punishment for failure.
Burns also said we are at a “make or break moment” for business and society—driven by a toxic mix of inequality, environmental challenge, the pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, all hitting at once. “Everything is changing.”
By the way, we usually avoid politics in these interviews. But Burns had some characteristically candid advice for how CEOs should vote in the U.S. election. You can listen to the full interview of Ursula unleashed here: Apple/Spotify.
Burns will be talking about board diversity at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit, which begins today—virtually. Among those attending will be a who’s who of top female CEOs, including GM’s Mary Barra, Northrop Grumman’s Kathy Warden, Citi’s (soon-to-be-CEO) Jane Fraser, Accenture’s Julie Sweet, Edward Jones’ Penny Pennington, Guardian’s Deanna Mulligan, Ulta’s Mary Dillon, Ariel’s Mellody Hobson, Ancestry’s Margo Georgiadis, Carbon’s Ellen Kullman, Nextdoor’s Sarah Friar, Magic Leap’s Peggy Johnson, and more. They are allowing me to join Thursday to interview IBM Executive Chair Ginni Rometty on the massive challenge of reskilling the workforce for the coming wave of technological change—a topic she discussed on Leadership Next in this episode.
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