Anne Mulcahy

Photo: Courtesy of Xerox

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The Power of Letting Go: Anne Mulcahy
Former CEO of Xerox

She was once dubbed "the accidental CEO." An English and journalism major, Anne Mulcahy never aspired to the top job at Xerox. But once she got it, she surrounded herself with a team of people smart enough and brave enough to help her halt the venerable company's downhill slide, and led Xerox to a remarkable turnaround. Yet the most remarkable thing she did was walk away. New York Times op-ed columnist Gail Collins analyzes the exit strategy:

Transfers of power are rarely graceful—or voluntary. Think King Saul and David. Or Jack Welch on TV volunteering to "get a gun out and shoot" his successor, Jeffrey Immelt, if Immelt failed to make his earnings targets at GE. Or virtually every other CEO in modern Wall Street history.

Up till now, most of the major power handovers at American companies have involved men. So we were definitely prepared to gloat about the first big woman-to-woman transfer at a top U.S. corporation—the shift at Xerox from CEO Anne Mulcahy to her handpicked successor, Ursula Burns. On July 1, Burns became the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 firm. She was also perhaps one of the best prepared. She and Mulcahy had built a seven-year partnership, with Burns's engineering pedigree perfectly complementing Mulcahy's background in sales. But after all her preparation to make sure Burns could move seamlessly into the top job, when the time came to actually begin the transfer, Mulcahy found ceding her authority surprisingly hard: "It's like your kids growing up, I guess, right?" she told Fortune. "It's like, 'Oh, I'm not the center of the universe anymore.'"

The next-to-final step, in which Burns became president while Mulcahy stayed on for a period as CEO, was the critical moment—when, as they told Fortune, they found they didn't agree at all about how Burns's new role would work or which powers Mulcahy should retain. Wisely, Mulcahy and Burns realized that they should stop worrying about the organizational chart and instead focus on where they wanted the company to go next. "One of the things we often miss in succession planning," Mulcahy told The Wall Street Journal, "is that it should be gradual and thoughtful, with lots of sharing of information and knowledge and perspective, so that it's almost a non-event when it happens."

It's no big trick ceding power when you're eager to leave. But making it work when your heart wants to hang on requires serious reserves of self-awareness and willpower. It was great to see a woman show the corporate world how masterfully it can be done.
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