CEOs can be strikingly different: Consider the even-keeled personality of Apple’s leader Tim Cook vs. the intensity Steve Jobs possessed. Or compare the flamboyant Richard Branson of Virgin Group to the demure Satya Nadella of Microsoft. But dig beyond the outward show and take a deeper look at successful CEOs, and you’ll find characteristics that are striking similar, says William Thorndike, author of The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success.
“As we researched CEOs for the book, we expected to find a variety of paths to their performance, but we were surprised to find very strong patterns, including several personal traits,” says Thorndike.
For example, CEOs who excel tend to be frugal with personal and business finances, often leading philanthropic lives, says Thorndike. They’re patient, independent, and comfortable pursuing dramatically different courses than their peers. And most are married to their original spouses.
“They tend to be analytically oriented,” he adds. “Many had engineering degrees.”
And they’re not afraid of hard work. From the time they were young, successful CEOs clocked in hours at jobs that were a far cry from the boardrooms they govern today. From oyster shucker to vacuum salesman, we discovered some of the surprising first jobs held by 10 famous CEOs:
As a child, Michael Dell collected stamps. At the age 12, he took a job washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant to earn money to grow his collection, according to biography.com. He was promoted to busboy, but was later lured away by a higher wage at a nearby Mexican restaurant.
Before she took the helm at Yahoo, Marissa Mayer worked as a clerk at a local grocery store. It was there that she learned the importance of working quickly; the only way to work in the coveted express lane was to be able to scan 40 items a minute, she told CNN.
Doug McMillon is one of the few CEOs who stayed with the same company his entire career. The president and CEO of Walmart got his first job working at the company’s Arkansas warehouse. “Teamwork wins and hard work pays off,” he told CNBC. “If you don’t take care of the basics like showing up on time and striving to exceed the expectations of your leadership, your career doesn’t move.”
Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren originally planned to be a veterinarian. His father worked two jobs to pay the tuition, but Lundgren’s poor academic performance caused his father to pull the plug, according to the Fashion Institute of Technology. Lundgren changed his major to business and got a job shucking oysters for a local restaurant, putting himself through school. He eventually became manager of the restaurant, but moved into retail when he graduated.
Clarence Otis, Jr. had food service experience when he became CEO of Darden Restaurants, the Florida-based company that operates casual dining establishment such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster. His first job was as a restaurant server in a Los Angeles International Airport restaurant. “You learn how to interact with a broad range of people, how to observe and listen,” he told USA Today.
Craig Jelinek, CEO for Costco, got his first job when he was in junior high school boxing groceries. “I would come in at six o’clock in the morning on Saturdays and Sundays, clean the bathrooms first, sweep the floors, and then box groceries,” he told Motley Fool. He was promoted to food stocker, and after he graduated from college, he became a food manager.
Warren Buffett, the “Oracle of Omaha,” started out delivering newspapers on his bicycle for The Omaha World-Herald at the age of 13. On his first tax return, he claimed his bike as a deduction, according to biography.com. By the time he graduated from high school in 1947, Buffett had earned $5,000, which is the equivalent of $54,000 today.
Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, paid her own way through college. When she came to the U.S. to attend graduate school at Yale University, she took a job as a receptionist in her dorm, opting for the graveyard shift–from midnight to 5 a.m.–which paid 50 cents more per hour, according to Fox Business.
Always the entrepreneur, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos created his own first job. While in high school, he and his former girlfriend Ursula Werner launched the Dream Institute, an educational summer camp for fourth, fifth and sixth graders. The 10-day course taught students everything from Gulliver’s Travels to black holes in space, nuclear war and how electric currents work, according to the Miami Herald.
Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, had a very low-tech first job. After high school he took a summer job selling vacuum cleaners door to door. He was accepted to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, but chose to defer his enrollment for a year to keep selling vacuums. “I loved it, strange as that might sound,” Hastings told the Bowdoin Orient in 2013. “You get to meet a lot of different people.”