In 1990, when Ursula Burns was executive assistant to Xerox's then CEO, Paul Allaire, she sat in on a high-level meeting about changing an employee-benefits policy and after a while raised her hand. "I don't get it," she remembers saying, "but from what I could get, I don't like it." The reaction to her unsolicited feedback--the executives realized they needed to stop using corporatespeak if they wanted employees to embrace the new policy--had a profound effect on Burns, who recalls thinking, Hey, I didn't get slapped down. Speaking up has helped Burns, who grew up in the projects in New York City, rise through the ranks from summer intern in 1980 to her position as president of Xerox Business Group Operations and probable successor to CEO Anne Mulcahy.
Burns' division is responsible for products that bring in more than 80% of Xerox's sales, including high-end publishing systems that helped the ailing copier-and-printer company return to profitability last year after major restructuring and a $10 million fine for accounting fraud. Burns, 45, says climbing the corporate ladder has also taught her to shut up a bit more. "If you give people a chance to speak, they probably will," she says. As for nabbing Xerox's top job? "The responsibilities I have today will keep me busy and keep me learning for quite a while." --By Julie Rawe