CEOs Are Just Like You - Without All the Whining

Last Updated Mar 22, 2011 7:03 PM EDT

CEOs Are Just Like You Without All the WhiningPeople are always complaining about CEOs having all this wealth and power, it's not what you know but who you know, the rich keep getting richer, and all that. What a bunch of whiny crap.

You'd think CEOs were born with the title, like royalty. Or they just fell right out of the sky into a cushy corner office chair. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many, if not most, CEOs started with nothing. But instead of whining, they took responsibility for their careers, worked their tails off, and made it.

Here's a powerful example straight from this week's news page. Let me introduce you to three executives who started at the bottom, climbed the corporate ladder, and ultimately built two of the "baby bells" from the 1984 breakup of AT&T into giants that now dominate America's telecom industry:

Ivan Seidenberg, CEO of Verizon Communications, began his career as a cable splicer's assistant right out of high school. He climbed the corporate ladder, became head of NYNEX, a Regional Bell Operating Company, and through subsequent mergers with Bell Atlantic and GTE, became CEO of newly formed Verizon in 2000.

Ed Whitacre, Jr., former Chairman and CEO of AT&T, began his career as a facility engineer at Southwestern Bell in 1963. He worked his way up to CEO, aggressively acquiring companies, and eventually formed SBC Communications. When SBC bought what was left of AT&T, it adopted its brand and AT&T was born again.

Randall Stephenson, Chairman and CEO of AT&T, joined the Oklahoma IT department of Southwestern Bell right out of school in 1982. He became CFO of the company 25 years later and succeeded Whitacre as CEO in 2007. Yesterday, he took over where his predecessor left off, announcing a $39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile USA.

    Ivan, Ed, and Randy weren't born CEOs. They worked their way up for decades, one day at a time. That said, the question of whether they really are just ordinary, everyday people remains. The answer, of course, is no, they're not. But what makes them different may surprise you.

    Now, I don't personally know these particular CEOs, but I have known hundreds of successful executives with stories similar to theirs. Frankly, I started out without a pot to piss in myself, so I know something about what it takes to "make it" and what drives many of those who do.

    They've experienced significant adversity in their lives. That's why they don't whine and complain; they know it doesn't do any good. Instead, they become adept at either finding creative ways to resolve issues or brute forcing their way through and persevering. Either way works.

    They have something to prove, but they're not necessarily clear on who they need to prove themselves to or the origins of that need. Still, that voice inside their head often drives them in a desperate and persistent sort of way.

    They believe they're special, destined for great things. And, although they're entirely wrong about that - we're all the same, just flesh and blood people - the belief is often self-fulfilling.

    They're like pit bulls with a vision. Once they find something they're very good at or passionate about, they latch onto it and won't stop driving themselves and the company to new heights, usually in the name of a bold vision or goal.

    They're unusually smart and instinctive. They're also adept, perhaps even Machiavellian, at using those attributes in the achievement of whatever it is that drives them purposely forward. And I mean that in a good way.

      Again, I'm not saying that every successful executive who starts from the bottom has these attributes, but they're common enough. Also, many of the same characteristics are responsible for narcissistic and other dysfunctional behavior, but you know, everything good comes with a price-tag.

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