When Xerox’s executive team met in 2014 to discuss the proposed sale of its information technology outsourcing (ITO) business to the French company Atos, everyone expressed agreement that it was the financially savvy decision, CEO Ursula Burns told journalist Adam Bryant at the New York Times New Work Summit on Tuesday.
“But you’d walk out and I’d have more people trying to kill this thing than you can imagine, without discussing it out loud,” Burns said.
It was another instance of “terminal niceness,” the disingenuous politeness that Burns vowed to rid Xerox of when she became its CEO in 2009. She told Bryant that the goal has been going well, but that the ITO deal was an example of how difficult the move toward transparency can be at a big company with a long history.
That particular ITO deal went through for around $1 billion and it’s not one Burn regrets. She wished, however, that her direct reports would have been more forthcoming about their feelings when they had assembled as a team. That way she could explain her reasoning rather than having to deal with private meetings that only created an air of secrecy and restraint among the team.
As a legacy technology company, Xerox was on the brink of bankruptcy in 2000 and only narrowly avoiding going under on account of CEO Anne Mulcahy’s leadership. When she passed the role onto Burns, Burns knew that if she was going to keep Xerox alive she would need to make some difficult decisions and not pretend as if everything were great.
She told Bryant that older companies are especially prone to “terminal niceness” because many employees spent years in the company together and genuinely feel like a family. But as she told Bryant for a 2010 article he wrote, she wanted to remind her employees that real families are frank with each other.
“You grew up with people and you want to be kind,” she told Bryant at the New Work Summit. “And that’s a good thing, but kind doesn’t always mean that you’re smiling and happy. Kind means that you’re real with each other and that you can have a set of constructive, I call them fast-paced, discussions. And so you’ve got to build up relationships to allow that to happen without having a whole lot of scar tissue at the end.”
It’s up to a company’s leadership to encourage honesty among its employees, where they are unafraid of repercussions for voicing an opinion they assume is unpopular.
“You can’t be raised by wolves,” Burns said. “You can’t be totally rude all the time.” But, she added, “You can be rude a little bit, some of the time.”
You can watch the entire interview below.
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