BBC Capital

From doorman to board room

About the author

Elizabeth is a freelance writer in California and a former Career Q&A columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

  • The secret past lives of CEOs

    A tour guide, a barman, a dishwasher and a racetrack errand boy… What do these four people have in common? Today, they run multimillion dollar, global companies.

    Everyone has to start somewhere. Before they got their big break or climbed the corporate ladder, these four executives — now working in the US, Australia and Hong Kong — made their share of mistakes and took some interesting paths to the top.

    What did they learn along the way? Quite a bit.

    Click through the pictures above for their best career advice. (Image credit: Thinkstock)

  • Improvise your way to success…

    Leading others? You’ll need to force yourself outside your comfort zone, says Fred Cook, chief executive officer of public relations firm GolinHarris. Cook knows a little something about that personal challenge. While he now heads a firm with about 50 offices worldwide, Cook’s previous jobs include: record executive, Italian faux leather salesman, junior high substitute teacher in an inner-city, cross-country tour guide, cabin boy on a Norwegian tanker and doorman at a four-star hotel.

    An eclectic mix, yes. But the best time to take chances is early in your career, Cook said.

    “When you reach the top, everything you say and do will be scrutinised by the press and the public,” said Cook, who recently penned Improvise: Unconventional Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO. “Luckily, on the way up, nobody pays much attention, which allows those of us who lack the standard business prerequisites to improvise.”

    For Cook, savvy improvisation helped him land an early job as a tour guide. First, he crafted an interesting and intriguing resume which carefully reshaped his exploits “as a cabin boy, doorman and chauffeur,” he said. “I packed my suitcase with a dozen guidebooks about stops on our trip that I’d never visited. I discovered that with a little preparation and a lot of creativity, I could confidently lead people through unfamiliar territory.”

    For Cook, improvising is about “creating something special from whatever ordinary ingredients happen to be available”.

    This should be a mandatory business skill — no matter what the career stage. “When technology, economics, and politics change as often as Facebook profiles, being president of a company or a country is a lot like being a tour guide who doesn't know exactly where he’s going,” he offered. (Image credit: Fred Cook and Logan Futej)

  • Little things lead to big rewards…

    Between her classes in business and marketing at Harvard University and marathon study sessions, Katherine Yip worked as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Boston’s famed Faneuil Hall. Some of her colleagues never worked overtime, but she often would stay behind and help clean up. Her extra service eventually paid off; one afternoon, the manager said he needed someone reliable and diligent for the cashier’s position. He chose Yip.

    While her pay didn’t go up in the new position, Yip valued the new role for the trust the owner had placed in her and the opportunity to learn new skills, such as accounting, she said. The position also gave her a better appreciation of how hard it was for the owner to make money.

    “I think the most important thing for an employee is not to look at what you can get first, but think about how you can do your best,” said Yip. “Little stuff sometimes will reward you a lot.”

    Today, Yip is chairman of KYG International, a global investment and advisory firm based in Hong Kong. She is the first and only female founding partner of Pacific Alliance Group (PAG) and VinaCapital Group (VCG) two of Asia’s leading listed investment funds.

    Before she reached this pinnacle, however, Yip pursued her passion for “edu-tainment”— essentially, a form of entertainment such as a video or a show that aims to educate viewers. In 1987, she founded AMW Hong Kong, a design, sourcing, manufacturing and distribution business. The company partnered with a Wisconsin company to distribute Disney products in China.

    Yip’s career took another great leap after she received a call from American Girl doll founder Pleasant Rowland, who needed someone to manufacture accessories for the dolls. According to Yip, Rowland cold called her after seeing her photograph in the media with Wisconsin’s then-governor Tommy Thompson. “She said that she approached me because I had a kind face,” recalled Yip.

    Yip knew that Rowland’s company needed “precise craftspeople who could work with multiple small parts.” She first approached high-end lingerie manufacturers, believing they could craft miniature, high-quality clothing. She was “politely laughed off their premises” after she explained that she needed items durable enough for child’s play but deluxe enough to justify the high price tag of the doll.

    So Yip did it herself. In 1997, she established her own factory and became the exclusive sourcing agent and quality control provider for American Girl. In 2012, she sold the company, AMW HK Ltd.

    “My work with American Girl has been pivotal to my career,” she said. “It taught me to trust my instincts. It allowed me to expand my expertise, strengthen my entrepreneurial skills and achieve my passions. And it helped me define my equation for success — passion plus talent plus hard work.” (Image credit: Katherine Yip)

  • Everything is an adventure…

    Richard Earl should know. He once worked as a heavy labourer (un manutentionnaire) in a fruit packing factory in the South of France and as a barman while finishing up his university studies.

    When Earl arrived in Perth, Australia, in 1991, he had a hangover and A$320 ($300) in his pocket. He made a promise to his then girlfriend (now wife) that they’d give Perth “a go” for a couple of months, even though the city was in a recession at the time.

    “I hung in there, and patience and determination eventually paid off,” said Earl, founder and managing director at Talent International, an information, technology and telecommunications recruitment specialist firm, now headquartered in Sydney.

    Four years after arriving in Perth, Earl, who was working as a software developer, started thinking about striking out on his own. The company where he worked was decent but conservative.

    “I’d always had an inclination to do my own thing,” said Earl. “I was always coming up with ideas to improve the business but was always told by older management to not rock the boat.” Even though his wife was pregnant, he took the leap. “It was the mid-1990s, and technology was really starting to transform people’s lives. The opportunity was clear for all to see,” he said. “Eventually I thought ‘I’ve just got to give this a go and try some of my ideas.’ … I launched Talent in 1995, and I never looked back.” (Image credit: Richard Earl)

  • Never pass up an opportunity...

    As a communications major and baseball player at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Stephen Waldis lucked out when he landed a summer internship with the New Jersey State Racing Commission with hours flexible enough that he could work around his hectic baseball schedule. The job entailed driving from racetrack to racetrack doing administrative tasks like delivering documents to offices, washing cars, or putting petrol in cars.

    “It was tactical, but it taught me the value of hard work, establishing relationships, being on time (and) meeting deadlines,” said Waldis, the CEO of Synchronoss, a multinational software and cloud storage provider, headquartered in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

    Even as he was kept busy doing menial tasks, Waldis stayed open to new challenges. When the manager of the commission’s information technology department needed someone to test new software that was being deployed at the racetracks, Waldis jumped at the chance. It changed the course of his career.

    “I enjoyed it so much that it got me hooked on what technology could do and changed my path towards the IT industry,” he said. “Talk about a curveball.”

    The lesson: never pass up an opportunity, according to Waldis. “Rather than following a written path, follow your instincts and bet on yourself. Most of the time, you will prove yourself right.” (Image credit: Synchronoss)