Anne Mulcahy at the Forum: Toughness, empathy

Former Xerox CEO Anne M. Mulcahy took the company's helm at a time when it was is in such financial turmoil that some wondered whether it would exist. In her first few years on the job, she slashed the staff in half. On Tuesday morning, Mulcahy talked about leadership at the Forum of Executive Women's annual breakfast Tuesday.

Her speech was inspiring, even to me, and I've heard a lot of CEOs talk and I'm not inclined, in general, to be impressed. What made it more inspiring is what I learned after the event -- her husband had died no more than two weeks ago. In light of that, her grace and poise was even more impressive.

Here are a few of the points that she made to this group that finds itself keenly interested in leadership, particularly for women.

1. "It's really important to develop a passion and expertise in something," she said. That passion and expertise becomes the bedrock for a career. It's important to come to the executive table, actually knowing something. For her, the passion and expertise came through sales and customer service.

2. Know who you are: "Have an accurate assessment of what you do well and what you don't do well, so you can leverage your strengths, but more importantly, compensate for your weaknesses," she said.

3. "Groom honest critics," she said, in order to get the feedback necessary to compensate for weaknesses.

4. Aspire to be a leader that people want to follow -- it's not about the leadership, it's about the "followership." By being "tough, fair and trustworthy, you create a cadre of constituents" that have a stake in your success. "Followers get to determine who the great leaders are."

5. As to work-life balance, that's up to each person to create, define and discipline. "I've never been confused that my family is first," she said. Many times, she said, she was away from her family, but there were many more nights that she was home for dinner at 6 p.m. "For me, it was work and family and nothing else for a lot of years."

6. Lighten up, keep the fun in work and don't take everything so seriously.

7. "Transitioning from being a CEO is one of the toughest jobs I ever did," she said. It was helped by being able to transition into being a leader in a top nonprofit.

8. To young women, don't be complacent. You may think there's a level playing field, but the statistics indicate otherwise.

9. Ambition and power are not dirty words. "Institutions have an obligation to do a better job in supporting and bringing out the natural ambition that women have in the workplace. I do not let businesses off the hook."

10. Even though the Forum stressed the idea of building a relationship with a sponsor as key to getting ahead, Mulcahy cautioned against it. "Just the idea of thinking about a single relationship is a big mistake," she said. It is better to build a network. "It's an army, not an individual." While sponsorships are critical, they can't be forced. "A lot of time it feels like a shot gun marriage," she said.

11. When given a position of responsibility, take it and step up. Don't be a note-taker, task completer, she said, describing the advice from the Xerox CEO, who had elevated her to chief of staff. "He expected me to be ambitious. We need more people who expect us to step up to the plate." 

12. Toughness and empathy go hand-in-hand. "Toughness comes from the willingness to make the decisions that others don't want to make." More toughness? Having the courage to deliver the tough message also counts. When Mulcahy was slashing jobs, she delivered the bad news herself to each business unit and didn't rely on underlings.

Click here to read my Inquirer story on the Forum's study of executive women in the region.