How calling out a VP helped an entry-level employee become CEO of Xerox

Ursula Burns, Chairman and former CEO of Xerox
Kevork Djansezian | Getty Images

Before Ursula Burns became the CEO of printing giant Xerox, she was an intern and then an entry-level engineer making less than $30,000 a year.

Her rise really began when she confronted an executive VP during a company meeting in 1989.

During the meeting, an employee asked why Xerox was so focused on diversity. Burns wasn't sold on the explanation given by the executive leading the session, CNN's Cristina Alesci reports: "She stood up, in front of everyone, and chided him for displaying a lack of passion and principles. Her comments led to an 'unfriendly' exchange between the two."

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The man she chided, it turns out, was Wayland Hicks, an executive VP at the time. "I thought I was going to be fired," Burns tells CNN.

Instead, though Hicks reproached Burns for her tone, the two continued their discussion over several meetings. In 1990, Hicks offered Burns an executive assistant role that introduced her to the C-suite and changed the course of her career. She describes the job as "the most important she's ever held."

Two decades later, in 2009, after steadily gaining responsibility, she took over as CEO of Xerox. She held the position until 2016.

Burns was raised to be assertive, she tells CNN: "I grew up in a neighborhood that you could really be run over. … You have to speak up, you have to be a little gritty."

Speaking up at that meeting in 1989 changed her life.

As former Google career coach Jenny Blake writes in her book "Pivot": "The universe rewards backbone. Not speaking up or acting authentically may lead to a bigger explosion down the road, when you least want or expect it."

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