When seeking a role model, it makes sense to aim high. Fourteen-year-old Douglas Barry did just that, writing letters to the leaders of some of the world's most powerful corporations to ask how he could someday attain such a lofty position. The plentiful responses he received —many of them warm, personal, and funny — were remarkable not only for their content, but also for the fact that these high-level individuals spent some of their highly compensated time responding to a child’s query.
The piece of advice he received from many of them was actually not to aspire to be a CEO. "George Fisher, who's the CEO of Kodak, said in a very short letter that there is more life than being a CEO," said Barry on Wednesday's "Deborah Norville Tonight."
"He said 'Go for your dreams, whatever they are.' It struck me. I realized he was right. You have to find what you really love to do first, and then take that goal to wherever it may lead you."
When I was 12 years old (I am now 17), my lifelong dream of becoming an archaeologist faded before my eyes. It faded, in fact, when I watched a TV documentary about archaeologists and learned what they really do. Of course I knew that they excavated bones and artifacts from the past, but I never realized just what lengths they went through to find their prizes. Hours of labor in the sun, in the dirt, and sometimes even underwater, suddenly didn’t seem like fun to me. I began to wonder if it might be better to just sit in a nice office and manage these archaeologists out in the field while I still got to reap the benefits of the dig….
Then, in the summer after I finished 7th grade, my family took a trip to Europe. While touring the French countryside, I saw a McDonald’s restaurant in the middle of a small village. I was speechless! And it struck me like a bolt of lightning, this awesome power of major corporations to influence the entire world, even tiny villages in France. It was then that I decided to strive for the very best, and to reshape my future goals. It was then that I knew I wanted to become a Chief Executive Officer of a major corporation.
But soon panic set in. How does one become a CEO?, I wondered. Sure my mom is a bank vice president and my father is a doctor, but no one in our extended family has ever reached the heights of CEO of a major corporation. My first thought was that I had to raise my grade-point average from 3.9 to 4.0—otherwise, I thought, I would have no shot. I also figured I needed to join every club in school, and to be elected to the student-body government (no less than President would suffice, I figured).
But even as I began to set these enormous goals, I had a nagging feeling that perhaps I was missing some secret ingredient needed to become a CEO. So I decided to go directly to the source—to seek advice from the men and women who have reached the peak of the corporate mountain.
I prepared a letter that I sent to the top executives of more than 150 major corporations, asking them the basic question: What does it take to become a CEO?
I could never have predicted what happened next. First of all, most of the CEOs responded with personal letters. And the responses I received were sincere, heartfelt, personal, and surprising! I quickly realized that my initial fears and subsequent plans (ensure a 4.0 GPA, join every club under the sun, become student-body president, etc.) were unfounded. And I found out that, besides the fact that there is no secret ingredient to becoming a CEO, there is also no prerequisite. The men and women who responded to my letter, and whose names we read about in newspapers every day, were themselves just kids once with big dreams. Many of them were not excellent students (though all appeared to be voracious readers). Most of them were not born with a silver spoon in their mouth. And all of them faced great adversity and achieved even greater accomplishments in their own unique ways.
But most of all, the similarity in the advice offered is what struck me most. Find something you love to do. Work hard. Respect others. Don’t be afraid to fail. Protect your integrity. Go for your dreams. And more….
The advice, personal counsel, and universal words of wisdom offered here by today’s titans of industry has already inspired me immensely.
I hope it inspires you, too.
Despite their authors’ varied backgrounds and expertise, a pattern emerged in the letters, it was quickly evident that a good leader needs seven attributes to succeed:
- Respect: “I believe in treating people with respect. My style is to speak to people, be available to them and willing to answer their questions. This also means being straightforward and honest with them.” —Sanford I. Weill, Chairman and Co-CEO, Citigroup, Inc.
- Passion: “Passionate people get things done. Passion for doing what you’re called to do resonates in every fiber of a true leader. Passionate people energize other people and build enthusiasm. And as you surely know, enthusiasm is contagious.” —Leonard Roberts, Chairman and CEO, RadioShack Corp.
- Vision: “One of the key qualities that any CEO (or successful person) needs—a willingness to stretch yourself and go after goals that others think are too visionary, too hard, or too ambitious to accomplish.” —Richard A. McGinn, Chairman and CEO, Lucent Technologies.
- Humanity: “Actions need to go beyond the letter of the law to a spirit of trust and integrity, and a willingness to lead on issues where the needs are greatest. This also includes a commitment to give back to make the world a better place—both as a corporation and by providing opportunities for employees to give their time and talents to help others.”—Betsy Holden, President and CEO, Kraft Foods North America.
- Curiosity: “I am curious and interested in just about everything. So, I am always learning and working at the margin of my ignorance.” —Harvey Golub, CEO, American Express.
- Integrity: “It is critically important to be determined to do the right thing—to commit to conducting yourself with the highest standards of ethics and integrity. It will inspire people’s confidence and trust in you. And people, as a result, will help you in ways that you would never expect, and maybe never even know about.” —Raymond V. Gilmartin, Chairman, President and CEO, Merck & Co.
- Pragmatism: “An important mark of a good leader [is] to know you don’t know it all and never will.” —Anne M. Mulcahy, CEO, Xerox Corp.
Who wrote back?
The list of those who wrote to this young man reads like a who’s who of today’s corporate leaders.
Printed with permission from Wisdom for a Young CEO: Incredible Letters and Inspiring Advice from Today's Business Leaders by Douglas Barry, Copyright © 2004 by Douglas Barry, published by Running Press Book Publishers, Philadelphia and London.