What CEOs admire: Ursula Burns of Xerox

March 1, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

How great leaders run great companies goes way beyond dollars and cents for the leader of Xerox.

Ursula Burns:

Ursula Burns: "Admiration takes on a whole new level when you appreciate just how complex it is to run a modern business."

FORTUNE -- We asked three prominent business leaders -- Jeffrey Immelt, Ursula Burns, and John Donahoe -- which companies they hold in high esteem, and why. For Burns, CEO of Xerox, doing good is good business. She spoke with editor-at-large Patricia Sellers about what that means for some of the World's Most Admired Companies. Edited excerpts:

Q. Which company (or companies) do you most admire, and why?

There's a lot I admire about a lot of companies. And, as I tend to do, I'd put them in categories of:

  • Established global brands
  • Relatively new businesses that are already redefining themselves
  • Personal brand favorites that never disappoint

Dow (DOW) and American Express (AXP) are two established global brands -- high performing type of companies that have a deep understanding of their markets and how they're uniquely positioned to serve them. They stay true to a corporate value system, benefit from quality leadership and are firmly entrenched as respected powerhouses.

If Amazon (AMZN) continues its rapid pace of redefining their business, they seem poised to be one of those rightly admired companies. I already admire Amazon (No. 3) for their ability to master the simplicity of e-commerce. I use Amazon all the time. It feels like they know what I need before I do -- and I'm ok with that. And, I give them credit for taking short-term hits in the pursuit of long-term gains. As a user, I see them as a step ahead of everyone else in the e-commerce arena.

To me, no list of admired companies is complete without Wegmans. I'm showing my Western New York bias here, but anyone who has been in a Wegmans knows it's not your typical grocery store. Despite all the hype and fanfare Wegmans has rightly earned for years, the Wegmans family has been thoughtful and deliberate about their expansion. It's been slow by design and it's all managed through a very careful approach to the customer experience and community involvement, from store to store.

Frankly, Wegmans could have gone the public company route and funded rapid growth, like Whole Foods (WFM). They chose not to for many good reasons. Their approach to leadership, to partnering, to taking care of their people, to delivering a consistently great experience -- so much to admire. I live in Connecticut now -- and I miss Wegmans.

Are there attributes of these companies that you've imported into your own organization?

Oh sure. A couple of quick thoughts: Established companies like Xerox (XRX) can learn from the new players like Amazon that moving fast and being nimble is required in today's business world. Nothing is permanent, and business models need to be scrutinized in much, much shorter cycles than ever before.

My time on the American Express board has influenced the approach we take to branding -- treating our brand as the asset it is and making decisions that align with how we want the brand to be perceived and respected. Amex (No. 16) is very good at this. We're getting better.

Are the corporate attributes you admire today the same ones you did at the outset of your career?

Fresh out of college, you tend to join a company because it's a job. But, you tend to stay because it becomes a career; you start to feel at home. In the beginning of your career, you're focused on you: I like this place because I'm doing rewarding work; they take good care of me; the people are nice; there's runway for me, etc. For me, I was very much in tune to the cultural attributes of Xerox -- how respected the company was (and still is) for diversity, being a good corporate citizen, being an innovation engine. I came for the job and quickly stayed because of all these things.

As I've progressed in my career, I've come to appreciate -- and really value -- the other attributes that define a company's success beyond the P&L: great leadership, long-term financial strength, ethical business practices, evolving business strategies, sound governance, powerful brands, values-based decision making.

I could go on … but it's fair to say that I see the broader picture now. That's the benefit of experience and having career opportunities that expose you to the inner workings of how a company ticks. Admiration takes on a whole new level when you appreciate just how complex it is to run a modern business.

If, as the Supreme Court suggests, corporations are people, what would you want your own company's epitaph to be?

Oh come on, is this a trap? Unlike people, companies outlive their founders and their leaders. We've been around for 100 years, and I spend more time thinking about what and who we'll be for next decades. So no need to create an epitaph, thank you.

Do you benchmark your company only against peers in your industry, or do you think it's important to measure your company's performance against best-in-class organizations in other fields?

Both. We're pretty fanatical about this. I want to know how our peers in the industry are performing and how they're getting things done. It doesn't always mean they're benchmark or we are, but it's helpful to have a baseline of understanding, which often leads to a healthy debate of who in the industry is really doing something right -- like a sales coverage strategy. But, I'm more interested in true benchmarking of the perceived best-in-class companies: from the basics on org structures and financial systems to how they're able to deliver consistently strong customer service.

Do you think multinational corporations overall are more or less admired by the general public today than, say, 10 years ago? Why?

I've got to go with less admired. These past 10 years have brought out the worst in a few companies and brought down all the rest. I see so many companies -- and I lead one -- that have a huge impact in creating a stronger economy and a better way of life for millions of people. The "what's right for many" has been clearly overshadowed by "what's wrong with a few." The public's impatience with it has reached an all-time high. I can't say I blame them.

Do philanthropic and social responsibility initiatives really help burnish a company's reputation among customers and partners? What company stands out as a role model?

Can I pat Xerox on the back for this one? In our industry, we stand out as the company that has long acted on the belief that doing good is good business. I inherited this value system and it continues to be one of the points of pride for our people and very much for me. I certainly spend a lot of time and dedicate a fair share of resources to understanding the greater good our company is doing for our society.

And I do business with my heart as much as I do with my head, both personally and professionally. Frankly, those companies that dismiss citizenship as a necessary evil don't get my time, attention, or business -- unless they're looking to benchmark us as an example of decades-long, values-based leadership.

Procter & Gamble (PG) gets it. And, I really respect their purpose-driven approach to running their business. It permeates their entire operation. For example, we recently worked with P&G (No. 9) to manage their global fleet of printers, multifunction systems, etc. We saved them a lot of money, but P&G was just as focused on reducing their own carbon footprint -- and gave us clear marching orders on the need to digitize their business. But they were also quite collaborative in the approach. Eight million fewer pages later and a 30% energy reduction really prove the business case of social responsibility.

I'm less concerned about whether being a good corporate citizen burnishes a company's reputation. That's just an added benefit. I believe it's a responsibility, and there is no negotiating on responsibilities.

A shorter version of this interview appeared in the March 19, 2012 issue of Fortune.

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