BLG Leadership Insights

The First Jobs of 8 Business Leaders

Business leaders aren’t always raised in a board room. More often than not they have to work long hours to gain the respect and influence they have. The following business leaders prove that moving up the ladder takes more then a degree or two and a letter of reference. Instead, it takes the ability to work odd jobs, have interesting experiences, and learn from them.

1. John Y. Brown, Jr.: Before Brown made the fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken into a household name–he sold Encyclopedia Britannica door-to-door. While Brown attended law school he earned an estimated $60,000 a year selling the reference works to Kentucky’s bibliophiles. Later, Brown entered politics and became the governor of Kentucky.

2. Michael Dell: Chances are you’ve used one of his Dell computers. However, it’s unlikely that you ate at the Chinese restaurant he used to work at when he was 12 years old. Dell was a host at a local Chinese restaurant until he was bought out by a neighboring Mexican restaurant a year later. When he was 16 he sold newspaper subscriptions by cornering the newlywed and new resident markets with a direct mailing campaign. Needless to say, he dropped the sales job to study computers.

3. Stephen M. Case: Case, founder of AOL, was one of the first entrepreneurs to set America and the Internet up on a blind date.  Before that Case worked in Pizza Hut’s marketing department testing and advertising new flavor combinations. What Case discovered, we individually knew: people like their pizza simple. The basic cheese, crust, and sauce recipe always won out over complex flavor mash-ups  and cheese stuffed crusts. He brought this “keep it simple” aesthetic to AOL and made the internet as user friendly as possible.

4. Ben Cohen: Cohen was a part-time, minimum-wage-making, Renaissance man before he helped create the ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s. Cohen worked as a McDonald’s cashier, a security guard, a taxi driver, and a mop-boy at the restaurant chain Friendly’s until he finally settled down and became a teacher. His steady teaching job gave him the free time to start experimenting with quirky ice cream ideas. As you probably know, he had a knack for flavors and eventually started a small ice cream shop in Vermont.

5. Adolf Zukor: Zukor redefined the film industry. He made one company responsible for the production, distribution, and exhibition of a film. It was a winning formula that made Paramount Pictures a industry leader. Yet, Zukor wasn’t always involved with the stage. Oddly enough he was involved in what stands in front of it. He was a hard-up New York immigrant chair upholsterer. Later, he got into the fur and fur sewing business and made a large fortune. He used his new fortune to invest in a playhouse along with a friend. The profits convinced him that he was on to something and he eventually created Paramount Pictures.

6. Christian Dior: His family wanted him to be a diplomat and he wanted to become an architect. It’s too bad he became one of the biggest names in fashion. Dior’s first job wasn’t exactly grueling. He was a gallery owner in Paris who sold works by Picasso, Braque, and Cocteau. Sadly the gallery shuttered when Dior’s family lost their wealth just before World War II erupted. After the war Dior was convinced France and the world were ready for a new fashion and a new look. His artistic eye and tastes, molded from his days as an art dealer, helped him shape and define post-war fashion.

7. Warren Buffett: Now the CEO and primary share holder of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett wasn’t always one of the world’s richest men. Instead, he was a newspaper delivery boy who worked small side gigs to get by. He famously filed his first income tax return in 1944 at the age of 14. He landed a $35 dollar deduction for the use of his bike and watch on his paper route.

8. BONUSWilliam Addis: In 1770 Addis was imprisoned in England for starting a riot. While he was there he wanted to make something of himself–so he turned his attention to oral hygiene. At the time teeth were brushed with a rag dipped into soot and salt. Addis had a better idea. He stole a bone form his prison meal, whittled holes into it, and lodged bristles into the holes. The modern tooth brush was born. When Addis was released from prison he massed produced the toothbrush and became wealthy by 1780.

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BLG Leadership Insights

Leadership Book Forum: Captains of Great Failure–On the deck of The Bear Sterns

We often talk about leaders wearing blinders, being xenophobic in their focus, engaging in group think, and indulging in cognitive dissonance. Not only are these captains of the Titanic the victims of icebergs they are the creators of the icebergs. Finally, when it’s much too late they try to turn the ship around but the course to destruction has long ago been set and the first ship to go down was “The Bear Sterns.

Read these two books before you get trapped by your organizational culture, your xenophobia, and your own sense of glory:

House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street, by William D. Cohan.


And, Street Fighters, by Kate Kelly.


Update: The New York Times just did a piece on this subject and sums up these books well.