Rising From Mailroom to Corner Office: Still Possible?

Charging Bull, a bronze statue by Arturo Di Mo...

Arturo Di Modica's "Charging Bull" --  Source: David Prior 

The idea that someone can start at the entry level of an organization and work his or her way to the top is very powerful.  It’s the embodiment of the belief that brains, talent, hard work and perseverance create opportunity for success.

But that belief is not universal.  This came to my attention during a conversation I had a couple of months ago, which I had put aside for later blogging and am belatedly revisiting.  It was a discussion with the Wall Street Bull.  For those of you unfamiliar with him, that’s the Twitter persona of Arturo Di Modica’s 7,100-pound bronze sculpture, “Charging Bull.”  He graces Bowling Green in downtown Manhattan and tweets up a good conversation --particularly remarkable in view of the fact he has hooved feet that measure about two feet across, which must make it awfully hard to navigate a keyboard or smartphone.

Anyway.  This started with my tweeting an NYX 360 blog item marking the birthday of Gerald Swope, who personified the mailboy-to-CEO journey.  Here’s the back and forth:

RP:  Gerald Swope, who rose from $1/day "helper" to CEO of General Electric, born Dec. 1, 1872 - NYX 360 http://bit.ly/rILXtw

WSB:  I wonder how 2day's lack of opportunity 2 work up 2 CEO from the mailroom impacts employment.

RP:  There's more opportunity today than ever.

WSB:  to start at the VERY bottom position & advance? Companies don't hold onto people that long anymore, I'm afraid.

RP:  Would have to research but I bet there are CEOs who started at an entry level or close to it.

RP:  Here's Huffington Post on 11 CEOs who rose thru ranks, most from entry level: huff.to/tuMVRU

WSB:  yes--but they didn't start recently, I bet. Min wage jobs were more attractive when in 20 yrs you might be running the place.

WSB:  (contd) ... mergers & today's employer ADHD mean employees aren't kept long enough 2 be able 2 rise frm bottom 2 top anymore.

RP:  Yes they started decades ago. But years from now we'll be reading about those who are starting today.

I acknowledge that today’s corporations – including my own – have moved away from the maternal approach of decades ago.  Employees must continually demonstrate their value to earn their continued employment.  The change in the old social contract has also meant that many employees don’t look to their companies for long-term (much less lifetime) employment. 

However, none of that means that an individual determined to rise from bottom to top is any less likely to do so today compared with the past.  Consider:

  • The Internet has made information as well as skill development available more widely and freely than ever before. 
  • Companies are less hierarchical, making a rise through the ranks easier.
  • Social media make networking easier and have helped to break down the old class system.
  • Companies are focusing more on succession as well as investing in developing a pipeline of high-potential employees.

I also base my view on my own observations here:

  • I saw Dick Grasso become the first employee to rise from entry level to chairman and CEO.  He came from a working-class, Italian-American background and had no college degree, which in decades past would have precluded his rise to the top of a financial institution.  His determination to learn and master the business, together with his intelligence, skills and perseverance, paved the way to his success. 
  • Our CEO Duncan Niederauer started his career as a restaurant manager before rising through the ranks at Goldman Sachs to become head of equities trading – not the CEO spot, but a position from which he moved to head trading here and then moved up to CEO.
  • Today, I see our company recruit business analysts out of college and actively look for opportunities for them to grow with our business.  I see us investing more than ever in employee education, mentoring and career planning and development.

I’d love to hear your take on this.  Rising from the mailroom or entry level to the CEO’s office: Is it still possible?