Leadership Lessons Learned on the Firing Line

author: Anne M. Mulcahy, Xerox Corporation
published: Dec. 9, 2013,   recorded: November 2006,   views: 1730

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When Anne Mulcahy discusses the ideal connection between an employee and a company, she might be describing her own experience at Xerox. “I’m big on this: A company should hire with the intent to keep people and build careers. And you should want to come to companies …because you can see a long-term future…Those are the best relationships, when there’s an intent and objective to make them long-term, deep and meaningful. ”

If it sounds like Mulcahy’s referring to a marriage, it’s not far off the mark. She’s remained with Xerox for 30 years, starting as a field sales rep, working her way up the management ladder. In an ultimate expression of fidelity and commitment, she took over the corporation in its darkest hour -- in 2000, when “things began to unravel in a big way.”

Xerox faced a “perfect storm” of problems, according to Mulcahy, from a weakening economy to an SEC investigation. Its revenues tumbled and the corporation’s debt mounted to nearly $19 billion. Faced with these unprecedented challenges, Mulcahy called on financier extraordinaire Warren Buffett, who advised her to focus on customers and “lead your people as though their lives depended on your success.”

In the face of very skeptical investors and bankers, she followed Buffett’s counsel. Billions got lopped off corporate enterprises that were not performing optimally or serving customers’ needs, but she shored up research and development, acknowledging their critical role in Xerox’s future. Four years ago, Xerox lost just under $300 million. Last year, it made $978 million.

Mulcahy has drawn a number of lessons from her harrowing turnaround tale. Leaders must “listen with a bias toward responding,” even during prosperous times, so they can learn about deep-seated problems and jump on them proactively. This means seeking out critics for “the straight scoop.” Simplify the corporate structure and communicate “a few clear priorities” – in person, if possible. She notes that previous Xerox managers had relied on a “classic, Powerpoint slide solution to organizational effectiveness” but it “was a nightmare when you went around the world and couldn’t find anybody who had clear responsibility for anything.” Make sure you’ve got the right people for the right jobs -- diversify and make sure to hire “people who are different and smarter than you are, with skills you don’t have.” And if the organization is struggling or failing, articulate a vision of the future that employees and customers can buy into. Finally, lead with humility. Great leaders burn with ambition for their companies, not for themselves.

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