Diane O’Connor believes she has been in the right place at the right time for her career.
O’Connor, 60, was named vice president of environment, health, safety and sustainability for Xerox Corp. in May.
Her organization provides leadership on all aspects of health, safety and environmental responsibility throughout Xerox, from its own operations and suppliers to customer offerings.
O’Connor oversees roughly 80 direct employees. The majority of those staffers work on the company’s Webster campus, but others are scattered throughout Europe and North America. She is also responsible for indirect staff such as safety managers in call centers.
In more than 30 years with Xerox, she has honed her skills and advanced through the ranks, landing at a spot where she feels she belongs.
"I feel like I’ve spent my whole career getting ready for this job," she says.
O’Connor grew up in the Syracuse area, the youngest of the family, with two sisters and a brother. The family was tight-knit, and when her father had a heart attack during O’Connor’s teenage years, she looked at colleges in the area so she could stay close to home.
She chose Syracuse University. O’Connor began as a math major but switched after being inspired by one of her chemistry teachers, a professor who often drew standing-room-only crowds at his lectures.
"His passion for the subject really came through," she says.
A female teacher was a role model for O’Connor as well, since it was not common then for women to be chemistry teachers.
O’Connor received her bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University in 1974 and went on to get her master’s degree from the university, also in chemistry, three years later.
After graduation, O’Connor learned that Xerox was looking for chemists. She landed a job there and never looked back.
What drives her love for the company is its people, O’Connor says, as well as the ability to advance at one company rather than moving from firm to firm.
"I was able to switch gears at one company rather than going elsewhere," she says.
Besides her current job, O’Connor has held management positions in engineering, quality, purchasing and supply chain operations. She prefers management to working solo in a lab.
"I’m more of a people person," she says.
She also has advanced her education at Xerox, earning an MBA from the Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester in 1983.
One of her first priorities after taking her current job was creating a strategy for the organization and the company as a whole. She spent several hours a week with a group over the summer to determine that strategy.
It was a top priority for O’Connor because her department has to record its results. When you are reporting to federal agencies, for example, you have to have exact data, she explains.
"This is an area where you can’t fake it," O’Connor says. "You can’t be roughly right."
The department has received accolades this year. In September, Xerox was recognized for its commitment to corporate social responsibility.
For the fifth consecutive year, Xerox met the FTSE4Good criteria for corporate responsibility, social and stakeholder engagement, human rights and environmental actions. Created in 2001, the index is a series of benchmarks for socially responsible investors who want to measure performance using globally recognized standards.
Xerox also was recognized for its commitment to sustainable innovation by its inclusion on the Newsweek Green Ranking List. Newsweek rated Xerox in the top 50 for environmental performance.
In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency recognized Xerox among the nation’s top purchasers of green power in the technology and telecommunications sector.
The job is a good fit for O’Connor, who describes herself as environmentally conscious. For instance, rain barrels outside her home collect water she uses to wash her car and water her lawn.
A challenge in her role is conveying her department’s vision and message to the broader company. With the acquisition of Texas-based Affiliated Computer Services Inc., Xerox is double the size it was a few years ago.
The size of the company, however, helps O’Connor find new ways to fulfill her department’s mission at Xerox organizations around the globe. On a recent trip to Jamaica, she was inspired by the recycling initiatives of workers there.
Travel is a big part of O’Connor’s job. She is on the road roughly one week a month and acknowledges that one of the things she likes least about the position is the travel involved. She does, however, enjoy the destinations.
"I love meeting different people and experiencing new cultures," she says.
When she is working at her Webster office, O’Connor starts her day by waking up at 4:15 a.m. She watches 15 minutes or so of news before leaving her home in Ontario County for a workout at the fitness center of the Woodcliff Hotel & Spa in Perinton.
O’Connor gets to the office around 7 a.m., eats breakfast at her desk and checks email. That is followed by meetings and conference calls throughout the day.
A person of habit, O’Connor has the same daily lunch-cottage cheese and fruit-and makes an afternoon run to a Starbucks shop for a hot chocolate.
She switches gears in the afternoon.
"The morning is when I am more active," she says. "In the afternoon I’m in my thinking mode."
O’Connor’s office has photos of family and friends. The back of her office door is covered with such pictures and she updates many of them regularly. There are also posters from Broadway shows that a nephew has starred in, as well as drawings from her nieces and nephews.
As a business leader, O’Connor believes it is her responsibility to make sure the people working for her have the tools to complete their jobs and the ability to advance if they desire.
She uses the same career development tool with others that she used herself. It involves deciding where you will be in five to 10 years and determining what you need to get there.
"People may know what they want to do, but they may not know how to prepare themselves in order to get those jobs," she says.
O’Connor says she has been fortunate to have role models and mentors at Xerox. They include Alan Monahan, one of her supervisors, who was able to balance his professional and personal lives, the latter of which included volunteering in the community.
"He led by example," O’Connor says. "When he talked to you, you felt like he really cared what you were saying."
Monahan, who retired from Xerox as senior vice president, corporate strategic services, says O’Connor has many traits of a good business leader.
She excels, for example, at having a clear vision and a plan for how to achieve that vision.
"This approach is the polar opposite of the traditional, time-unproven, seat-of-the-pants approach employed by many business leaders," Monahan says.
He also speaks of O’Connor’s ability to communicate, describing her as a good coach and counselor who is approachable and caring.
"Diane is among the best people managers I have come across in my career," he says.
O’Connor’s educational background and professional experience help her in her current role at Xerox, he adds.
"With degrees in chemistry and business and prior experience in environment, health and safety, she is the perfect fit to carry out her new position in an exemplary manner," Monahan says.
Off the job
O’Connor lives in Honeoye in a home on the lake, where she enjoys outdoor activities such as walking, kayaking and golfing.
She is a fan of books on tape and enjoys mystery-thriller novels. Favorite authors include Patricia Cornwell, Janet Evanovich, James Patterson and John Sanford. Another hobby is solving Sudoku puzzles.
O’Connor also enjoys vacations. Her interests in history and travel have combined in a new pursuit-visiting the gravesites of U.S. presidents. She has been to half a dozen, including those of Franklin Roosevelt in Hyde Park, Dutchess County, and James Garfield in Cleveland.
O’Connor is active in support of the American Cancer Society. A breast cancer survivor since 1999, she participates regularly in the society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk.
O’Connor has been involved with the agency for several years, walking in events in Rochester and Waterloo, says Gerianne Puskas, the society’s regional director for institutional relations and the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer initiative. Two years ago, O’Connor was the keynote survivor speaker at the agency’s Waterloo event.
This year, O’Connor became the first pacesetter for the Waterloo Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event, Puskas says. A pacesetter is an individual who raises more than $2,500.
"As a survivor, she is very dedicated to this initiative and has worked hard to recruit family members from across Upstate New York, friends and raise funds," Puskas says. "In the process she also spreads the word about the importance of routine cancer screenings and preventative measures."
O’Connor also is willing to speak to groups on behalf of the American Cancer Society and share her story as a way to encourage others to get screenings, support the cause and recruit volunteers.
"The funds and volunteers she brings to the American Cancer Society have and will help us to provide vital patient services and support locally as well as invest in life-saving research," Puskas says.
Professionally, O’Connor is excited to continue in her new role at Xerox.
"I love coming to work every day," she says. "I feel like this job allows me the chance to make a difference."
Position: Vice president, global environment, health, safety and sustainability, Xerox Corp.
Education: B.S. in chemistry, 1974, M.S. in chemistry, 1977, Syracuse University; MBA, Simon School of Business, 1983
Family: Did not provide
Activities: Walking, golfing, kayaking, reading mystery-thriller novels, solving Sudoku puzzles, traveling
Quote: "I feel like I’ve spent my whole career getting ready for this job."
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