The former Xerox CEO, retiring as chairman May 20, on her most difficult leadership decision—knowing when to walk away
"It's really hard to give up power. You get up with a bounce in your step every day because you know you can make a difference"
The CEO job wasn't something I sought out. It was like being drafted into a war. But I grew up at Xerox (XRX), and I wanted it to have a future. I wanted people to be proud of this company again. There was no question I would take the job. The question was whether I could succeed.
I loved every minute of being CEO. The biggest surprise is how hard it is to give it up. I would have thought I'd be running out the door once the place was in shape. I almost understand why so many successions go badly. It's really hard to give up power. You get up with a bounce in your step every day because you know you can make a difference.
I went from being "I just want to be a CEO" to understanding that I have to be an advocate for women. There's a responsibility that comes with the position. If you don't speak about the need to focus on the progress of women, who will? Maybe we've reached a degree of parity at the entry level, but we clearly don't have that in the executive ranks—or in government, for that matter.
To retire at the age of 57 is a gift. I became head of Xerox at 47...but the more relevant gauge is time in the job. I was there 10 years. That's long enough. To have stuck around until I was 65 would be a disservice to Xerox, a disservice to my successor [Ursula Burns]. It's inappropriate to suggest a single individual is the driving force of a company. You need a good dose of ambition, but it has to be tempered by humility. If you wait for the perfect set of circumstances to leave, you will stay too long.
I don't know yet what the word retirement means. I've always said I wouldn't be head of another public company, and I'll stick to that. I'm a one-trick pony. I've got other things I want to do. I'm chair of the board of Save the Children. I'm not looking to make any more money.
Hobbies? I have none. I used to make them up when people would put together those lists, just so I could sound more interesting. My life has been invested in this job. It's bittersweet, but I feel really fortunate.