Leaders on Leadership: Jeff Jacobson, BS ’81

The Xerox CEO discusses company culture, leadership and family values

Photo of Jeff Jacobson
Jeff Jacobson, BS ’81, CEO of Xerox

Every year, we print 50 trillion pages — with Xerox and CEO Jeff Jacobson, BS ’81, standing at the forefront of the document technology and digital printing industry. Since taking the helm in January, Jacobson has overseen the company’s largest product launch in its 111-year-history. He’s driving Xerox through a strategic transformation and investing in new technologies, including direct-to-object printing, smart labels and printed electronics.

Before Xerox, Jacobson served in executive roles at Presstek and Eastman Kodak Co.’s Graphic Communications Group. Along the way, he developed a leadership style that values and creates leaders at all levels of an organization. At Xerox, he’s even instituted a reverse mentorship program that pairs top-level executives with millennials, so they can learn from one another and the execs can stay current with trends and technology.

“Leaders should be cheerleaders with substance. What knowledge can we impart that others don’t already have?” he said during the Leaders on Leadership Speakers Series, hosted by the UB School of Management’s Center for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness on Nov. 9.

Read on for an excerpt of Jacobson’s wide-ranging conversation with Brandon Glasgow, a second-year MBA in the School of Management.

BG: How do you create a culture of leadership within Xerox?

JJ: Company culture is all about leadership, and that’s not just from the CEO or my direct reports. In fact, I tell them, “If the only leaders in this company are the top 11 people on the organizational chart, we’re in trouble.”

Peer leadership is the most powerful type of leadership you can have. When I really want something done, I can send it from my office and know people will do it. But instead, I’ll call leaders in our field organizations or research-and-development centers, ask for their help sharing the message and get their buy-in. That’s the best way to do it because then there’s this groundswell of support.

What tools do you use to communicate with or motivate your 35,000 employees?

Gwen Appelbaum told me, “I’ve never seen anybody respond to an email as fast as you.” That’s part of it: Being responsive and leading from the front. People will only follow someone if they believe in who they are as a person.

At the end of the day, I’m a conductor. My job is to look out at the orchestra, make sure I have the best people for their parts and make sure we’re all playing together to create that symphony.

When I became CEO, I sent a Xerox pin to every employee and asked them to wear it. I usually wear mine on my breast pocket because I want them to keep it close to their heart and remember: They are Xerox. Xerox is not just a brand name; all 35,000 of us make up Xerox and touch the customer in some way

 What motivates you as a leader?

For me, it’s fear. Fear can imperil you, or it can motivate you to get up in the morning.

And, winning motivates me. I would not have been able to go to college without UB’s low tuition costs, and in my neighborhood, we all came from those same means. I didn’t know what money was, and that was a good thing because now money doesn’t motivate me — winning does.

But the greatest thing that motivates me is that I’m responsible for 35,000 people, whose lives depend on paying their mortgage, their rent, their children’s education. That’s what drives me.

What is the best advice you’ve received on leadership?

In my era, the greatest leader is Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric. In his first book, Straight from the Gut, he said, “I might not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I’m pretty good at getting most of the other bulbs to light up.”

I received an industry award in 2003, when I was with Kodak Polychrome Graphics. Before the event, I was fixing my son’s tie, and he said, “Daddy, how many people are at your company?” And I said, “4,000.” “Does that mean you’re the smartest out of 4,000 people?!” I said, “Not even close, Mike.” Leadership is about helping people get to places they’d never get to alone.

What are the most significant challenges CEOs face today?

The greatest challenge for all companies is encouraging people to not be risk averse. How do you encourage people to truly play to win? I always say: Provided you don’t bankrupt the company on a bad decision, we’ll be stronger company if you get up, swing the bat 10 times and miss a few, than if you’re perfect, one-for-one. There’s the phrase “paralysis through analysis” — we can’t afford that.

What advice can you give students who want to be future CEOs?

Play the long game. Money will always be there. We’ve been married 32 years, and I don’t think I made what I’d call decent money until we’d been married about 13 years. For my first six, seven years of marriage, I worked a second job.

I also never thought I’d have an operating career. After graduating from law school, I was going to practice labor and employment law with a firm. When I resigned, the chairman of my company, who was five levels above me, came down to my office and said, “I think you’re making a huge mistake.” He asked me to give him one year — and take a position up in Canada. My wife — who had just put up with four years of law school, three hours of sleep and never seeing each other — was behind me. So, another great lesson is, if you’re going to be successful, it’s a lot easier if you have the right partner. Irene has encouraged me every step of the way.

Do you give your kids leadership advice?

I’ll tell you a story: When Irene had a significant birthday a couple years ago, my son, who’s 24, stood up and made a toast. He said, “Thank you for always doing it for me, not doing it to me.”

That’s a lesson I took into business. I love to be around people, so it was hard for me to tell people the truth when they weren’t doing a good job. You have to have those conversations in a constructive way, in the same tone of voice we’re speaking and — very important — you can’t let them leave your office until you’re sure they’re OK. It’s OK for them to lick their wounds for a bit, but don’t let them leave despondent; tell them, “I’m doing this for you, not to you,” and follow up the next day.

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