Remember your first job? Remember what it was like to be a newbie trainee? As it turns out, sometimes the lessons that you take away from your first job aren't the ones that you thought you were being trained to learn. The scut work of a first job can, over time, become the lifelong lessons that undergird an entire career.
At least that's what we learned from 15 well-trained leaders and accomplished performers, all of whom looked back on their first jobs as a source of their current success. What were those first experiences all about? And how did those first jobs create lasting lessons? Read about their workplace training — and see how the results of that training can go on working for a long time.
The Virgin Group
I've never worked for anybody else, so my first real job was at a business that I started at boarding school when I was 16. At that time, the Vietnam War was going on and the Paris student uprising had just occurred. I felt that school was a place where grown-ups were just trying to keep us busy. I decided to start a magazine that would address some of those issues. I didn't even have a phone, so I used a public telephone at school to sell advertising for my magazine. Over a six-month period, I managed to raise about $6,000, which was enough to cover the cost of printing and paper, so I decided to leave school to start the magazine. Being a precocious, overly enthusiastic young boy, I managed to get a lot of big celebrities — James Baldwin, Vanessa Redgrave, Jean-Paul Sartre — to write or be interviewed for the magazine. We started Virgin Records as a mail-order company in the magazine. We sold records cheaper than full price, and we built credibility through the kind of products that we offered — Frank Zappa, say, rather than Andy Williams. When I was about 18, I decided that the music industry was easier than the magazine industry, so I dropped the magazine but kept Virgin Records going. Everything else has grown from there.
I started the magazine because I had a passion for what I was doing. That's also why I went into the airline business, even though everybody I talked to told me that there was no money to be made there. I felt that I could make a difference. That's the best reason to go into business — because you feel strongly that you can change things.
Richard Branson is chairman of the Virgin Group, a privately owned conglomerate that has spawned such companies as Virgin Atlantic Airways, Virgin Interactive, Virgin Megastores, and Virgin Records.
Flatiron Partners LLC
New York, New York
For three summers in a row, starting when I was about 13, I worked as a locker-repair boy for a company called A to Z Locker Repair. The guy who was sort of the foreman of our group was extremely influential in my development. His name was Jack Martin. He had never finished high school, but he had saved up his money and had opened up a bar. Then he developed cancer of the larynx and had to speak through a hole in his throat. Every now and then, he'd have to clean out the hole, which was kind of disconcerting, but for the most part, we didn't think much about it because Jack was the most capable person on our team. He could look at a bent, broken-down locker and figure out how to put it back together so that some 16-year-old, 250-pound football player couldn't rip it apart.
One time, while I was fastening two pieces of metal together, I drove a drill bit right through my thumb. I went to Jack crying in pain, and he did the smartest thing: He reversed the drill and backed the bit out. The guy was unflappable. I was a teenager sorting through my own psychological stuff, but I could always look to Jack and know that he would see a way out of a problem. The qualities that people look for most in leaders is not infallibility or infinite knowledge but confidence in themselves and in their group's collective ability to find a solution. Jack had all that and more.
Jerry Colonna (email@example.com), a venture capitalist who cofounded Flatiron Partners in 1996, has since funded such companies as GeoCities, Kozmo.com, StarMedia, and TheStreet.com. The firm's financial backing comes entirely from Chase Capital Partners, the private-equity arm of Chase Manhattan Corp.
Senior Vice President
William Morris Agency
New York, New York
In my first job, I worked as a secretary for the two fiction editors at McCall's. I also read manuscripts from the "slush pile" that came in from hopeful amateur writers everywhere. I had two outrageously flamboyant women bosses, and working for them taught me that as long as profit and loss works — as long as you make money for the company — you can pretty much work your own way and have your own style. One of the editors was very much a fashion plate, and because of her I took my salary every week to a store on Fifth Avenue and put it toward a gorgeous gold brooch that I'd seen in the window. I had told her about the pin, and she said, "You have to buy it." She arranged for me to have a layaway plan in the fanciest store on Fifth Avenue. "You're working to have things," she used to say. "You have to have fun in this world."
After that, I worked at the Writer magazine. It was a sweatshop, filled with young Radcliffe women working for barely any pay. We would write other people's articles for them and not get credit. The magazine did a poetry issue once, and the editors needed important people to write for it. I had a famous uncle who was the poetry editor of the New Yorker, so at the general editorial meeting, I raised my hand and said, "I can get Howard Moss." There was silence in the room. Then everyone turned to little Joni as if to say, How do you know Howard Moss? Within a week, I was promoted. I got a raise and a better desk. And that's how I learned that everything is about who you know, not what you know.
Joni Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Manhattan-based literary agent, represents such authors as Marcia Clark, Nicholas Gage, Quincy Jones, Fran Lebowitz, Peggy Noonan, and Liz Smith.
George Forrester Colony
Chairman and CEO
Forrester Research Inc.
We have a formula at Forrester: Trust, which is the glue of business, is created by dependability, quality content, and intimacy with clients. Of those elements, intimacy is the hardest to achieve. If you ever listen to Frank Sinatra sing, it sounds as if he's singing directly to you. That was Sinatra's great skill, and that's what we try to achieve in our business. We want to connect with people on a human level — to touch them in some way.
I realized the importance of intimacy during my first job after college. I was working as a paralegal in a law firm in downtown Boston. It was a law firm that had deep local roots and tried cases before local juries, so its attorneys tended to connect with their audience in a very personal way. The best ones were able to turn a courtroom into a very intimate place.
I also learned the value of theatricality. To make a good legal case, you have to educate, but you also have to entertain, because the law is really boring. At Forrester, we have to present some fairly radical ideas about the future to large audiences. I often tell our analysts, If you're giving a speech, imagine that you're going before a jury. Put together a convincing case, be theatrical, and connect with your audience on a personal level: "If the gloves don't fit, you must acquit." That's how you become believable and how you make yourself a trusted adviser, so that your clients accept your ideas.
George Forrester Colony (email@example.com) is one of the most frequently quoted commentators in the high-technology industry. Forrester Research, the market-research, analysis, and consulting company that Colony founded in 1983, has a staff of about 90 analysts and a market cap of more than $1 billion.
Trish Millines Dziko
Technology Access Foundation
My mother cleaned the houses of rich white families in New Jersey's beach towns. She did two houses a day, and she used her time off to clean big vacation homes before each summer season. When I was 13, I told her in no uncertain terms that I had decided I wasn't going to attend college. She didn't say a word, and the first week after school was out, I was riding in the car with her at 8:30 in the morning, going to work. I don't remember why I thought college was such a bad idea, but I certainly do remember scrubbing toilets and floors. I did it every day, all day, all summer. It was my first job — and I hated it. But it gave me a real appreciation for my mother's hard work and a clear understanding of the value of education.
And yet the value of education has its limits, which I experienced in my first job after college as a programmer at Computer Sciences Corp. A white woman, who became a good friend of mine, was hired a few months after me but was paid $10,000 more a year than what I was making. I had been a computer-science major, and I'd hit the ground running. She was the same age as I was, but she'd been a psychology major, and the company had to train her in how to program. A lot of people say that everything's changed now, but it hasn't. Sure, there are more African-Americans online, but we're just consumers like we've always been. Not all people are created equally in corporate America, no matter what their skills are.
Trish Millines Dziko (firstname.lastname@example.org) joined Microsoft as a program manager in 1988 and retired in 1996 as a millionaire. Together with her life partner, Jill Hull Dziko, a social worker, she founded the Technology Access Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers training, summer jobs, and scholarship programs to children of color who live in the Seattle area.
Credit Suisse First Boston Technology Group
Palo Alto, California
There's a brilliant coverage officer who works at Morgan Stanley named Jim Runde. He was there in 1977, when I worked as an analyst right after I graduated from college, and he's still there today. He was the key guy who won the United Parcel Service IPO deal for Morgan Stanley in 1999. He is so great at what he does because he gets to know his clients on a very personal level. The first thing that he says to someone that he meets is, "I'm Jim Runde. Let's get to know each other. My wife's name is Barbara. I have three kids: a girl and two boys. Here are their ages. Here is what's important to me." Then he gets the same information from the client, and before you know it, they are playing golf or going to a ball game together. All of a sudden, it's a lot harder for that client to say to him, "No, Jim, you can't have my business," because it feels as if Jim is a part of the client's family.
I saw a lot of really smart people working at Morgan Stanley who did not fare so well because they weren't personable. People like Jim Runde turned out to be the most successful. If you relate to clients as people, and if you show them that you're vulnerable and human too, they're going to want to work with you.
Frank Quattrone, an avid karaoke singer, is head of the 350-member Credit Suisse First Boston Technology Group. He spent 17 years at Morgan Stanley, where, as head of that firm's global-technology investment-banking group, he led the landmark 1995 IPO of Netscape Communications.
Dean of the Graduate School of Business
When I was a kid, I worked almost every summer at my grandfather's dairy farm in upstate New York. My grandfather was a unique character. Instead of selling his milk wholesale, he bottled it, took it to town, and sold it retail. He also sold eggs from the chickens that my grandmother raised. Other farmers sold their milk wholesale, in 40-quart cans, and that was it. They didn't add value, separate cream, do marketing, or deliver eggs. My grandfather invested in equipment, but the return that he got was incredibly high for that time and place: Those other farmers got 3 cents a quart; he got 15 cents. That 12-cent difference was enough to send his two children off to very good private colleges. And that's probably why I'm working where I am today, instead of being back on that farm.
I remember when my grandfather, my brother, and I would go door to door delivering milk, cream, and eggs. I learned firsthand how you get customers: one at a time. I also learned the value of being different from your competitors. My grandfather's little delivery business might seem like small peas, but the lessons that I learned there are some of the great lessons of business life — and never in history have they been more true than they are today. Some multinational companies ignore them, and then they fail because of it. A lot of people think that the new economy has new truths. It doesn't. The old truths are still there — the new economy just has new risks and new opportunities.
Robert Joss (email@example.com), former CEO of Westpac Banking Corp., Australia's oldest bank, was appointed dean of the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University in September 1999.
Special Agent in Charge
FBI Chicago Field Office
I wanted to work as an FBI agent when I graduated from college, but I couldn't because the FBI only hired men to be agents back then. So I got a job working as an identification technician at the King County jail in Seattle. When people were arrested, I fingerprinted and photographed them, and then I verified their identity. It definitely wasn't a glamorous job, but it was considered a necessary job, and it was my way to get a foot in the door of a good organization. Not everyone who graduates from college starts at the top. There aren't many people in the FBI who are more senior than I am now — that includes men hired as agents when I went to work at the jail.
I always encourage people to consider taking those kinds of foot-in-the-door jobs. In the long run, it's often better to take a lower-level job in a place where you want to work than it is to hold out for some fabulous job right off the bat. People in an organization will get to know you, and you will have opportunities to volunteer or to start a mentoring process within the place that you work. A lower-level job also provides good training if you want to be a manager someday, because it gives you tremendous appreciation for the many roles that exist within an organization, how those duties fit together, and how important it is that everybody — no matter what their position is — feels that they are important to the larger mission.
Kathleen McChesney (firstname.lastname@example.org) became one of the FBI's top-ranked woman agents in the field last year when she took over operations at the FBI's Chicago field office. Only 3 of the FBI's 56 field offices are headed by women, and Chicago's office is the largest of them.
Aquarium Ventures LLC
New Haven, Connecticut
When I was about 12, my friend Jody threw a Halloween party at her house, and she invited me to work as a deejay. I got a friend to help me, and we enlisted two other people to be dancers and to keep the crowd interested. We had forgotten to bring a tape player, so I had to use one that belonged to Jody's father. We got paid $50 and a pair of Knicks tickets — and we couldn't believe our good luck. We divided our earnings, and that was the beginning of my "illustrious" career as a deejay. It was sort of a ridiculous pipe dream to think that at 12 years old we could start a business working as deejays. But we thought, "Of course we can do this. Why not?" By the time the two of us were 16, we were working every weekend and making up to $100 each a night.
Now I'm a junior at Yale. What I learned working as a deejay has applied double to my current enterprise. Earlier this year, a friend and I started a high-tech incubator for collegiate startups. The most important factor in any business isn't the equipment or the marketing — it's the people who are working with you and for you. Our little ragtag bunch of kids made my friend's party a success by creating a fun experience. I couldn't have created that experience without help from the others. Success is all about having the right people and making sure that they're happy, dedicated, and sharing in your profits.
Michael Stern (email@example.com) cofounded Aquarium Ventures with Peter Venech, a Yale sophomore, earlier this year with what they say is a total commitment of $1 million from a network of angel investors.
Director, Working Women's Department
For my first significant job, I worked as a clerk-typist at a university when I was 19. Back then, women really were second-class citizens in the workplace. We saw our secondary status in so many different ways — in our paychecks, in our lack of opportunity for promotion, in all kinds of day-to-day indignities that we endured. We were the "office wives," and we worked for "pin money" — as if we were all going to spend our earnings on brooches. In fact, we were paying mortgages and providing for our families. Of course, so much has changed now. We still don't get paid what we're worth, but at least now everybody knows why we're in the workplace.
The problem of gender equity in the workplace is systemic, not individual. I've learned that trying to cut a deal by yourself is never as effective as working together with others to set policies or practices that benefit everybody. It may be taboo to tell each other how much you make, but the only one who benefits from a lack of information among workers is the employer.
Karen Nussbaum (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder of 9to5, a national working-women's organization, and is the director of the AFL-CIO department that works on issues of special concern to women.
San Francisco, California
What did my first job teach me? That through hard work and determination you can shovel even the largest driveways. That's a metaphor, of course. It also taught me that if you're going to stay out really late, you should definitely call your mother to tell her. My first job — and my first entrepreneurial venture — was shoveling snow in the suburbs of Washington, DC when I was about 10. I would go house to house with a friend, trying to convince people that it would be better for everyone concerned if they paid us to shovel snow, instead of shoveling it themselves.
I laid out a simple cost-benefit analysis, demonstrating that their time was probably worth more hour-for-hour than what we were charging them. Once a price had been set — we charged $3 an hour per person — I generally said, "Look at that driveway over there. We'll make your driveway look like that." Different customers have different expectations, so it's important to be clear from the start about how to measure success. Sometimes we had a team of four or five kids from the neighborhood helping us. Teamwork was important, of course. It was a lot more productive — and a lot more fun — to shovel snow with a bunch of people than it was to do it alone. One of the most important lessons I learned was that after any hard day of work, a good cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows will cure what ails you. So now I make sure to keep an ample supply of it around.
Charles Katz (email@example.com), 25, is a cofounder of 1stUp.com, which was acquired by CMGI last year for $60 million. 1stUp provides free Internet service to more than 3.5 million subscribers and has service deals with AltaVista, Excite, and Lycos.
Washington National Cathedral
When I was 12, I worked in a neighborhood grocery store in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The store was in an "economically challenged" area — back then we just called it a ghetto — so the store was the economic center of the community as well as a social hub. People cashed checks there and bought groceries on credit. Women would meet there and catch each other up on the news. Retired men would buy tobacco and then sit out front. My family attended church regularly, so I knew that people there often gathered for religious fellowship. But working with the general public, I realized that everybody has a human need for community. Subsequently, I've worked with such corporations as IBM and Intel, and more and more, I've found that work culture is not conducive to human engagement or to building relationships. People have fewer and fewer places where they can meet their emotional or relational needs.
I think it's incumbent upon business leaders to honor such needs by creating work cultures that are caring and frank, and that encourage people to grow both emotionally and socially — if only because such cultures create employee loyalty and increase productivity. Work should be a place of community, where people can be honest and genuine in their interactions. If you want people to care about carrying out your company's mission, create a workplace that cares about them through policies as well as through relationships.
As dean of the Washington National Cathedral, Nathan Baxter is the chief priest and executive officer of the world's sixth-largest cathedral. The Washington National Cathedral was chartered by the U.S. Congress in 1891.
Anchor and Managing Editor
NBC Nightly News
New York, New York
My first job was mowing lawns. I had a push mower, and I said to my father, "I could make a lot more money with a power mower." My dad was a Mr. Fix-It type, so he went into the garage and built me one — out of a little old motor, some black plywood, and a few pipes. I was embarrassed when I saw it. I thought, I can't be pushing that around. All of my friends are going to have slick-looking machines. Kids did tease me at first — until they realized that my mower could go through anything. So I got the toughest jobs in town, and suddenly I was making more money than I could count. The experience was a real lesson for me. It showed me that what counts above all is the excellence of your work.
And the lessons went deeper than that: I learned that it only takes one person and a little bit of courage to move a whole crowd. When I was in junior high school, there was a lot of horseplay going on in the locker room, and one of the guys broke through an exit door that had been nailed shut. All of the kids had to contribute $2 to pay for the shattered door. But my dad said that it shouldn't have been nailed shut in the first place and that I shouldn't pay the money. Everybody was kicking in their $2, and I had to stand up in class and say, "My family is not going to pay $2, because the school's at fault here." That was hard to do as a 12-year-old. But everybody saw that I was right, and the school ended up paying for the door.
Tom Brokaw has been the sole anchor of the weekday editions of NBC Nightly News since 1983. He is a contributing anchor for Dateline NBC and a program anchor for MSNBC. He is the author of two books: The Greatest Generation (Random House, 1998) and The Greatest Generation Speaks: Letters and Reflections (Random House, 1999).
Institute Professor Emeritus
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The first noteworthy job that I had after earning my PhD was building the first atom bomb in Los Alamos. When the war ended, I took a tour by train through Japan to survey the damage that the bomb had done. The Japanese Army was demobilizing. Tired men were crowding into trains — into both passenger cars and boxcars — to ride home. At the station in Hiroshima, thousands of people lay dying on the platform. It was a sizable railroad station, and it had a roof — the only one left on the street. But the roof had holes in it, and the rain came through. The city was in ruins, its hospitals destroyed. People all over the country were hungry. Japan was in really bad shape.
More than 60 cities had been destroyed — two of them by atomic bomb, the others by tons of firebombs that the United States had dropped by the thousands. I was astonished by the power of the nuclear blasts. One atom bomb had created as much ruin and misery as hundreds of airplanes had. When I returned to the United States, my colleagues and I formed an organization that is now called the Federation of American Scientists. What we told the U.S. Congress in 1945 remains true today: It isn't hard to build an atom bomb. Anyone who really wants to build one can do it. But you can't win a nuclear war by having superior firepower, and no defense is 100% foolproof — because even a small penetration of nuclear firepower is extremely damaging. So the only solution is an international agreement that minimizes the number of bombs that each country keeps. We still haven't solved that problem, but I'm optimistic. I thought that we would have destroyed the world by now, but it seems that our statesmen are smarter than they pretend to be.
Philip Morrison (firstname.lastname@example.org) was the subject of an investigation in 1952 by a congressional anticommunist committee. Morrison, who is 84, has been the book reviewer for Scientific American for more than 30 years.
I'm a venture capitalist, so I'm in the position of coaching people who are the business equivalent of teenagers — entrepreneurs in their early twenties who don't like having structure or control imposed upon them, and who believe very strongly that they're right. How do you get passionate young entrepreneurs to realize that they might actually be wrong about something? You build a relationship with them, and you earn their respect before you try to influence them.
I learned that lesson at my first job after college, when I was working as a math-and-statistics problem solver for an industrial-gas chemical company. I had to persuade guys who were 20 years more experienced than I was to reconfigure distribution patterns and to relocate plants. Some of the managers were glad to have me there. They used young people like me deliberately, to provoke thought and to ask ignorant questions, which would sometimes lead to better answers. Others were much more defensive and felt that their status was being challenged. It was important for me to take more time with the ones that were sensitive and to earn their trust by proving that I could be useful to them. At the root of it all is respect. It might sound terribly old-fashioned, but if you show people respect, you get respect in return.
Patrick Dunne (email@example.com) is in charge of marketing worldwide for 3i PLC, a venture-capital firm with 30 offices in Asia, Europe, and the United States. He is the author of Directors' Dilemmas: Tales From the Frontline (Kogan Page, 2000).
A version of this article appeared in the August 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.