What is sometimes called an “executive book summary” has a thriving business. These are CliffsNotes for the troubled managerial class. New business books are limited to a few pages of bullet points, so that observers can consume them while on the run.
Ursula M. Burns is the former CEO of Xerox, a position she held from 2009 to 2016. She was the first black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. When her new memoir, “Where You Are Not Who You Are,” gets executive-summarised, the bullet points will probably be clear.
Burns credits her success to her single mother, a hardworking Panamanian immigrant welfare worker who raised three children in a rented apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Burns imprints the lessons she learned from her formidable mother throughout her memoir, and she separates six key takeaways on the final page.
Her mom’s advice is solid, and enough to make a complete impression here:
“Leave more behind than you take in.
“Don’t let the world be with you. You happen to be in the world.
“God doesn’t like ugly.
“take care of each other.
“Don’t do anything that doesn’t make your mom proud.
“Where you are is not who you are (and remember that when you are rich and famous).”
This is a PR-handout version of the lessons from Burns’ book. The real story is better. It’s more complicated, more complicated. There are also a few alternative takeaways from this book, ideas that mean a lot to other outsiders who are painstakingly trying to polish the sleek poles of elite corporate culture.
Lesson One: Be prepared for culture shock. Unlike many other CEOs, Burns had no initial acquaintance with Nantucket or Jackson Hole or socially for-profit colleges. He attended Brooklyn Polytech, now known as the Polytechnic Institute of New York University.
“Skiing? What was that?” She writes. “Tennis? Really? Swimming? Somehow not. I believe that colleges that require swimming exams for graduation have created a need to prevent poor kids from applying.”
Burns still doesn’t know how to swim. And you won’t see her playing golf, even though it was her mentor Vernon Jordan’s favorite activity. Once she became relatively wealthy, Burns writes, she still didn’t ski. She realized that she could enjoy life on her own terms.
Lesson Two: Marry an older man. It may be controversial, but it worked for him. Burns married a Xerox scientist who was 20 years older than him. He retired and took care of their children, enabling the author, one of the first born in life, to focus on his company.
Lesson Three: Affirmative action matters. Burns was helped by social programs of the 1960s and 1970s, and could not attend college without them. She writes about the lessons of affirmative action: “I love the phrase ‘talent is evenly distributed. Opportunity is not.'”
Lesson Four: Don’t Be Too Nice. “The Xerox family is obsessed with ‘terminal goodness,'” she once said in a speech to the company’s sales rep. He didn’t think that one should be unnecessarily mean. But too often, she writes, we fail to say what we mean, and people at Xerox sometimes “support each other’s mediocrity.”
Lesson Five: Let them see you sweat. Once she became CEO, Burns knew she had blind spots as a leader. She was not afraid to rely on the expertise of others.
Lesson Six: Read these books: Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom,” Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” and Collected Essays by Webb du Bois. Why? Because early in his career, Jordan told that too, and he was right.
Lesson Seven: You don’t need to be an extrovert. Burns never stayed long in a hospitality tent, although she had learned to come out of her shell. My favorite line in this book might be, “Most of my life is between my two ears, and always has been.”
Lesson Eight (And here I am, getting derailed, but this book isn’t all boardroom talk): Don’t fly to Japan on a private plane. “When I became CEO,” writes Burns, “I rarely flew my plane to Japan because of an irrational fear that if the plane went down in the China Sea and it was only me and the pilot, the rescuers would. It may not seem as hard for the survivors as they would if a large plane went down.”
That’s the advice I’ll keep in my back pocket.
Burns was at or near the helm of Xerox during its attempts to survive. As it struggled to move away from the information economy and away from tank-like copy machines (these are seen at the Smithsonian Institution) which defined it for decades, the company nearly went bankrupt. The difficult choice – outsourcing jobs was one of these – had to be made. Burns’ mission: Finding the upside among lots of downside.
“Where You’re Not Who You Are” contains lots of other useful stuff: accounts serving on the corporate boards of companies like American Express and Exxon Mobil; engaging with corporate activists such as Carl Icahn; Befriending and working with Barack Obama, after supporting Hillary Clinton during the 2008 election.
This book has its soft spots. It glides on decently on a lot of ingredients. It sometimes depends on resonant generalities. The author is an engineer at heart, not a writer, and his editor should have ended the cliché, sometimes two sentences, that emerge. (“I learned to put my cards on the table from the get-go.”)
If this book isn’t appreciably better written than most business stories—it’s not a literary memoir—it still really resonates. Burns has a new and important story to tell.
Over the years many people searched for the author. That’s probably the most inspiring lesson in this book – that you can’t do it all by yourself. He learned to seek out others in return.
You put her book down by remembering the words of critic Albert Murray, who wrote: “It’s always open season on the truth, and there was never a time when one had to be white to take a shot.”