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October 29, 2008

Bold Leadership at Xerox

Catherine New
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Above: Xerox’s Anne Mulcahy spoke to Columbia MBA students as part of the Silfen Leadership Series on Oct. 6 (part 1). View entire speech: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.

It is one thing to turn around a troubled company — it is another to transform it. Anne Mulcahy has done both. As the CEO and Chairman of Xerox, she led the company from near bankruptcy in 2000 to $17 billion in revenues today. She recently spoke to Columbia Business School students about her experience guiding a corporation out of a time of crisis — more relevant than ever, she noted — and creating one of the most respected and enduring businesses in the world.

A few of Mulcahy’s lessons on leadership:

Take time

“Understand the issues in the company and know what the problems are that you are facing. When I started … I traveled the world for 90 days listening to the problems through the eyes of our employees, investors and customers. A lot of our problems were masking fundamental issues in the business; we were trying to put out fires when we didn’t even know were the fuel leak was. Taking the time to understand the issues in a company is important.”

Communicate openly

“With our people and in public I was very candid about the issues. The level of transparency with regard to the problems you have is becoming more important by the day; an ability to talk about what will be done to overcome them is the other part of the communications strategy.”

Believe in it

“You have to have people aligned with your goals and objectives. It’s the scale of belief that is the single most important thing to making progress and without that, it is a disadvantage being big. It was the single most important thing for [Xerox] to make as much progress as we did.”

Make decisions

“Be bold and decisive in a time of crisis. Moving quickly and decisively and making a few mistakes is much more important than being as thoughtful and as perfect you can be when you don’t have time to put that perfect solution in place.”

Simplify your business plan

“We undid all the complexities and engineering so that there was this incredible logic about revenue, costs, expenses and profits that we hadn’t seen in a while. … It’s about strengthening the business fundamentals, discipline and control; it’s about having the discipline be focused on productivity and improvement.”

Don’t wait to change

“Use good times to change; don’t wait until the crisis. ... You have the luxury of time and [change] can thoughtful and it’s easier on the people.”

Follow your instincts

“Use your experience to make decisions. We had a five-dimensional management matrix [when I took over as CEO] and each step of it was logical, but when I looked at it, I couldn’t really find anyone who was accountable. It’s far less important the choice you make, than making a choice for clear accountability. So we made a choice: geography is our P&L center. At the end of the day, when I want to know what’s happening in Europe, I call the guy who is managing in Europe. It’s not perfect, but it’s clear and it enabled us to move quickly and efficiently.”