The Antidote to Career Despair: CEOs' First Jobs

Last Updated Jul 23, 2009 2:55 PM EDT

typical ceo's first jobFrom the lower rungs of the career ladder, it can be off-putting to look up and see exactly how long a climb it is to where you want to be. But a recent Silicon Valley Insider post points out that every CEO in America started somewhere -- and their beginnings in the business world were often just as un-impressive as yours. Don't believe me? Check out SVI's complete slideshow of CEOs' first gigs after college, or content yourself with these highlights:
  • Carol Bartz of Yahoo!: Traveling banking-software salesperson (in go-go boots, apparently).
  • Steve Ballmer of Microsoft: "Dessert machine" salesperson.
  • Jeff Zucker of NBC: Researcher at NBC.
  • Evan Williams of Twitter: Drifted between "various technology jobs."
  • Sumner Redstone of Viacom: Spy. (OK, this one's impressive but so entertaining I had to include it.)
Curious to learn who else had humble beginnings, I unearthed a goldmine of articles on executives' first jobs:
Forbes' CEOs' First Jobs. Highlight: McDonald's CEO James Skinner started out as a burger-flipping trainee.
NW Jobs' write-in column on first jobs. Highlight: Microsoft relocation director Peggy Smith bagged mail for RR Donnelley.
CareerBuilder's First Jobs of the Rich and Famous. Highlight: William Watkins, ex-CEO of Seagate Technology, once worked at a mental hospital restraining people.

So what's the takeaway for recent grads who feel like they're languishing in the backwaters of their company and worry that they'll never get anywhere? First and foremost, you're not the first nor the last to have a quarter-life crisis and fret furiously about your future. Second, there are several well-trodden paths from being a cubicle dwelling drone to the executive suite:

  1. Tough it out like Yahoo's Bartz.
  2. Create your own job like Williams and Bill Gates.
  3. Go home and build up the family business like Redstone. (For this route, it really helps to have a successful family firm to inherit. If not, see options 1 and 2.)
Perhaps most important, though, is the simple message that, yes, the economy sucks -â€" even your job may suck -â€" but things can and do get better. Especially, if you don't let the gap between here and there stop you from trying.

(Image of first job cartoon by Garrette, CC 2.0)

  • Jessica Stillman On Twitter»

    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.