I walked into a room last week and bumped into one of my long-time business idols, Ursula Burns, former CEO & Chairman of Xerox (from 2009 to 2016) and on the boards for leading companies like Exxon and Uber.
She was better than I could have ever imagined — cool, honest, feminine, powerful, Black, and candid about her perspectives and beliefs. She was a breath of fresh air. No BS, no hiding, no evading questions, or giving PR-polished answers. Just: here it is, take it or leave it.
As a woman and especially a woman of color, it’s easy for people to brand you as “difficult” or “demanding.” Early in my career, I was sensitive to being judged for this — the ultimate stereotype. This catering to folks wanting us to not be difficult, but pleasant, not demanding, but go-with-the-flow. But I quickly learned that it's impossible to conform, and accelerate in your career at the same time. Be placid so people like you, but then you don’t have the “leadership qualities” they expect at the top.
We are done with needing to acquiesce. We need to be more like Ursula. Take it or leave it.
It’s important for us to see examples of other women with a powerful North Star, a desire to do good and do well, while nurturing teams and talent, but not getting stuck in the tyranny of niceness.
In the short and precious time we had with Ursula, she made some powerful distinctions I want to share here:
There is a difference between assimilation and authenticity — knowing what is required to connect with others, versus protecting and holding space for what really matters to you.
Second, the toxic nature of niceness, which is an attempt to smooth over the truth, versus kindness, which is caring about people and finding a way to deliver truth that will land and is for their best interest.
Thank you Claude and the Equity Alliance team for bringing together a wonderful panel and a fantastic summit. We are energized to help our founders bring Ursula’s fortitude and steadfast purpose into the world.