Why Empathy at Work is essential: Veon’s CEO Ursula Burns

CEO Veon, the parent company of Jazz Pakistan, ruminates over how she made it to CEO of two major global companies – Xerox and Veon – and why visiting Pakistan is the best way to understand it.

Empathy at Work

GVS Magazine Desk |

GVS Managing Editor Najma Minhas sat down with Ursula Burns, CEO Veon, during her second visit to Pakistan with Veon. The global company is one of the world’s largest communications providers and owner of Jazz, Pakistan’s largest telecommunication company. Ursula first visited Pakistan in 1984 as a young engineer with Xerox at the time.

You have faced many obstacles in your life – you were poor, African-American, and a woman. How did you end up becoming the CEO of Xerox, a Fortune 500 company and now Veon?

Ursula Burns: I happened to be an engineer and went through a series of roles at the company that prepared me for even bigger roles, and ultimately for the CEO position. I extended myself out of the company and spent quite a bit of time working in the community and working with the government.

So, I was a ‘package’ that was fit for the job. However, the other part is that the rhetoric around the three characters you mention – a poor, black, woman – is that you are set up for failure.

Moreover, this is the standard structure of how our society operates. My mother made it clear to us – my siblings and I – that those things are facts, but two of them are incredible strengths to build on – being a woman and being black – these are positive attributes and not negative at all.

The poor part we had to work on because if it continues throughout your life, it would be challenging. So, my mother made it clear that there were very few obstacles that I could not work my way out of and she taught us not to spend a lot of time thinking about what other people think.

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Do you think you managed the team at Xerox differently because you were a woman versus if you had been a man?

Ursula Burns: I could not tell you because I have never been a man. I managed the team the way that I manage it. I do believe, from where I can observe, women have some distinct differences. One of them that I realized earlier is that our ability to listen is more keenly refined than a man’s ability to listen. Second, our ability to empathize is a very positive trait as it brings out the best and more in people in the team.

Now this is being changed because we are raising our children differently, so we have to find different ways to emphasize the value of a woman’s inherent nature. But these differences used to be viewed as weaknesses, but now it is being realized that more than ever, we need empathy in work. Not sympathy, but understanding. This ability that we have to be able to work together and that there are ways to work together – there are win-wins – without crushing someone and without making it a wargame.

These are things I consider attributes and strengths for me and for women in general. And one of the reasons I happened to be successful was that I had a little bit less of those things than most women, and it is an interesting balance because I am not as empathetic. I am probably slightly more upfront which helped me be successful.

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Pakistan is one of Veon’s largest markets – how have you tried to get your grip on understanding Pakistan?

Ursula Burns: One of the ways is to visit the place. This is my second visit with Veon, and I have been here twice previously in 1984 and 1991 while working in Xerox very early on. One should come if only because the TV does not give an accurate depiction of the country. You are subjected to all these negative images. However, this is a country with good roads and busy people, even though there is a side that needs to be modernized. So, one has to come, so you can see for yourself what you are dealing with.

Even though you cannot over-index on that because you cannot see a lot. The second is to spend time with the people from here when they come to us. So, Veon’s leader in Pakistan, Aamir Ibrahim, who is the CEO of Jazz, is responsible for making Veon leadership understand what it needs to, about Pakistan because he is the guardian and representative of that market in the boardroom for us.

Aamir Ibrahim CEO Jazz
You were known in Xerox for bringing change. What kind of change do you envisage bringing into Pakistan and the Jazz business?

Ursula Burns: This is about technology. The population of this country is growing fast, and they are going to be digital natives. A lot of our employees, businesses, and customers are growing in this time where the ability to transform a company and grow a company based on digital technology is here.

I think it is essential that I spend time with business leaders and government leaders here, to build and enable the required infrastructure for rapid progress which for a country like this is vital but also very difficult. Some of this enabling work has to do with necessary infrastructure, things like access to education, having people with essential reading and writing skills is vital for the success of Veon. So, we have to help these governments transform this.

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Are you doing any of that as part of your corporate responsibility work?

Ursula Burns: We sell technology so having people with skills to use it and have access to it, along with the necessary infrastructure through which it can be prolific is very important. So, I spend quite a bit of time with leaders to form a partnership to progress business. It is in some ways selfish to us, but it is also required for the foundational success of Pakistan and the other countries where we operate.

You are a very successful woman. What is it that you now wake up for? Is there something that drives you?

Ursula Burns: My kids. That is for sure; I wake up for my family. I like what I do, even now as a CEO for the second time. I was the CEO for nine years at Xerox and I was on the board there for ten years. So why would I do it again? Because the work is really good, fun and interesting, and it is something I can do fairly well. However, I have children that are examples of every child in this world.

One of the things I am very passionate about is education, mainly STEM education. It was my path out of a bad economic situation. I had a great family situation. And it can be the path out for every single person if they get fundamental education skills, and then they refine them towards something valuable. It is a way for their family to get to the next level. There is no doubt about that. Not everyone has access to it, but it should not be the case.

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Because of your passion, has Veon made some move towards that?

Ursula Burns: Yes. Both Xerox and Veon did not have to wait for me to work on this. I happened to join two companies that my passions aligned with. So, Xerox was really into education, and Veon is into, what I call, “enabling technologies.” The entire reason why we have communication devices is to allow citizens of their markets to participate fully in their economies, education, health, and basic communication.

So, it is one of the best things that I found when I got here to Veon was that I did not have to start banging a table to make people do corporate responsibility. I participated yesterday in an activity that Veon is supporting with the Minister of Education and with a knowledge foundation to help girls’ schools to have access to digital technologies that will enhance their education.

In just 12 months 25,000 girls have benefited. That is not something I had thought of, but they did. If you go to any of the markets where we operate, this is something that is very much part of Veon as a company.

So, you mentioned your children. How do you manage your work life with your personal life?

Ursula Burns: I will answer this question with a standard answer – we never ask a man this question.

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Is it insulting to a woman to be asked this?

Ursula Burns: No, it is not insulting at all; I think it is highly relevant and valuable to ask. However, I want us also to start asking men these questions even if all it does is get them into thinking about it. Because I am sure that some of them do, but a lot of them do not. So, they should start thinking about how do they balance it. The way we [women] think about it as – we have this foundation of the family – so we have to take something away to balance it.

Men think of it as a foundation of work, and they have to take something away from it to be with their family, which is odd starting point because we have the same foundations and families. However, I was lucky I had a couple of things which really helped me. One, I had the best husband in the world when it comes to this part of the relationship and in a lot of other ways. He just passed away this January, and it was a tough transition.

He was pretty remarkable and 20 years older than me. He was very mature, and he knew what he liked, and he was very proud and supportive of my success. So, he retired right after 41 years at Xerox. Right when my career, started to go crazy and took a steep trajectory, I just took over a large segment of the company, he spoke to me and said that we could not continue on our current methodology where we split every responsibility and since we did not want our kids to be outsourced totally, he retired and stayed home which was very helpful to me.

Moreover, he was kind of my alter ego, and it was really important to have someone to support me like that. The second aspect which really helped was that I do not take this idea of a traditional role-model mother very seriously, because my mother was not one. My mother did whatever it took; she made sure that we knew we were loved, but she had to break every other visual of a parent.

She spent time looking for food because we did not have a lot. She always had different jobs to support us, we put a wash into the house, and she would take care of other people’s children. She was an entrepreneur mom and not the typical mother. I realized only that I felt secure, loved, very confident even with this woman who was not around me every day. So, we raised our kids that way.

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You have mentioned your mother a number of times. What was it about her that was so special?

Ursula Burns: There was nothing exceptional. She was I think like a large number of mothers, particularly in situations or economies where they are marginalized, who still do the best for their future generation. They know that they do not have a big shot in their own immediate life to fundamentally change their personal position, but they prepare their children to improve their own situation.

So, my mother was just like that. She happened to be extremely stubborn and unbelievably optimistic about our input resulting in positive things – there was a structural belief that the nation and the world would respond to a good effort. There was a belief that hard work would bring success. Never did she think that I would become the CEO of anything; in fact, she did not even know what a CEO was.

However, I remember, when I was growing up, she used to tell us all the time that she never expects us to be a failure. Plain and simple – we are going to be well prepared, and successful in whatever we chose to do.

Empathy at Work

Do you have any regrets in your life?

Ursula Burns: My biggest regret is that I did not have more children. If I had thought about it, I would have planned it better. This was part of a resistance tactically; you physically cannot have them after a while. I would have had more children. It was hard when they were younger because it is crazy when your kids are young, and they do not follow directions or meet your expectations of the following instruction. So, that time is very difficult, but then there is right after that when we start to get bombarded with the other side of the equation with these great people who love you.

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How would you sum yourself up and your life so far?

Ursula Burns: In progress, but with a good start. I still have ways to go before I can wrap it up before I feel like I can do that comfortably. I think there are concentric circles of impact. You take care of yourself and your family in the inner-circle that is your fundamental requirement and hygiene. Also, your family is not just your kids but also your parents and siblings.

Success for me, my mother used always say this, you have to leave behind more than you take away. I have a lot now, I have an excellent education on the back of people I do not even know, scholarships to go to college, stipends to make sure I did not have to work full-time when I went to college. An amazing husband and a mother who taught me good rules about how to live and respect other people.

So, I had all these graces given to me, and I have to make sure that every day in my life I impart some of these graces back to others. And at the end of the day, I should be neutral on graces, and I have all this stuff now, and I should make sure others get some. I think I am far from done.