Everyone starts somewhere. Most every business leader of any company began their journey in something other than a suit and tie. Some starting blocks were not glamorous, or didn't command top dollar, or didn't even stay in line with their current role. For instance, did you know the former CEO of Viacom, Sumner Redstone, was a spy before working for his father’s theater? Costco’s CEO, James Sinegal got his feet wet as a mattress loader. And former CEO of the New York Times Company, Janet Robinson, taught elementary school students in Rhode Island.
And that’s just a sample size. I wanted to know a bit more about the first job experience of some well-known CEOs. What experience or experiences trained them to achieve the position they’re in today?
After some digging, I found a few that stood out.
1. Jonathan Schwartz (Former CEO/President of Sun Microsystems) - Before climbing the ladder and heading this technology firm, he began as a management consultant for McKinsey. The job helped teach him valuable lessons on leadership and adaptability. Schwartz observed his superiors at that time making mistake after mistake and trying to hold on to something that was a lost cause. To Schwartz, the message was clear: Once you know something’s amiss, you simply acknowledge the fault, react and move on to something else.
2. Alice Elliott (CEO of the Elliott Group) - As a 16-year-old, Alice Elliott was a New York factory worker who worked the line and was in charge of inventory. She said the conditions were less-than-ideal, but the experience was something much more. What she truly enjoyed most of all was the camaraderie with everyone she worked with. Elliott notes the shared optimism between her and all the employees as a key motivator for staying on and moving forward. She holds true to that if you can’t find an ounce of pride in whatever it is you do, then what are you working towards?
3. Michael Dell (CEO of Dell) - Hard work and carving out a solution were some of Michael Dell’s strong points stretching back to before he was even in high school. When he was 12 years old, he washed dishes at a Chinese restaurant - making $2.30/hour - so he could maintain his stamp collection. By 16, he was making around $18,000 a year (this is in 1967) selling newspaper subscriptions either door-to-door or over the phone. Months later he buys his first Apple computer, disassembles it and sees an opportunity. There was a solution to every problem, he thought. And it shows in the arsenal of computer accessories at Dell.
4. Clarence Otis, Jr. (CEO of Darden Restaurants) - Before becoming the CEO of Darden Restaurants, the company that owns and operates a number of national family restaurants such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster, Otis was making $3.50 an hour as a server for a Los Angeles Airport restaurant. He credits how serving so many different people each and every day instilled why you must take the day-to-day of any business with a fresh perspective. No two days will ever be the same.
Now as for my very first job? Well, growing up I had played baseball from the time I was 4 years old until my senior year in high school. I loved the game, and still do, so it was natural that my first job was umpiring Little League games at the local ballpark. I was 13 at the time and was getting paid to do something that I enjoyed. At the time, you never really think that you’re going to learn anything from your first job, but looking back, it did prepare me for what would come later in life both professionally, and personally.
I remember studying the rule book inside and out to make sure I knew every rule and was fully prepared for anything that might happen during the game. This preparation enabled me to jump up the ranks to be an “A” level umpire before any of my peers. Since then I have used the same level of dedication with each subsequent position I’ve held during my professional career. You have to take the time and be prepared for any of the curveballs that your job may throw at you, and then be confident that you’re making the right call. And obviously, you have to love what you do! I could not imagine a life where I went to work everyday just to put in my time and then go home and complain. You have to find a career that you’re passionate about and use that passion as motivation each day to lead your organization.
First job experiences are unique and memorable for nearly everyone. There’s no right or wrong start. And as you rise to fulfill other leadership duties later on, it’s important to keep those values in mind, so that one day you can pass along those skills to others in your office.
What was most memorable about your first job?