Building a Leader’s Brain: The Underdog Plan


vince-lombardiLeadership is fascinating because it’s rooted in mystery. What makes certain leaders great? What makes them tick? How do they know the right thing to do?

One way to approach the mystery it through the window of a small question: why did so many mailroom workers rise to become CEOs?

Here’s a partial list:

  • Dick Grasso (NYSE)
  • Barry Diller, Michael Ovitz, and David Geffen (William Morris)
  • Mike Medavoy (Universal)
  • J. Lawrence Hughes (William Morrow)
  • Ned Tanen (MCA)
  • Jeffrey Katzenberg (Paramount)
  • George Bodenheimer (ESPN)
  • John Borghetti (Quantas)
  • Tom Whalley (Warner Bros.)
  • Sidney Weinberg (Goldman Sachs)

Other mailroom workers-turned-leaders: Don Hewitt (60 Minutes), John Bachmann (Edward Jones), and Simon Cowell (EMI records). If you Google the phrase “started out in the mailroom” and “ceo,” you get 3,450 results.

This is a striking pattern, because it’s so unlikely. At most corporations, the mailroom is the bottom rung. Its duties are simple: you read and sort letters, photocopy, roam the building delivering the mail, fetch coffee. To become CEO, the mailroom group had to do a very difficult thing: they had to outcompete hundreds of employees who were 1) more qualified, 2) better-resourced, and 3) more highly regarded – since after all, they weren’t relegated to the mailroom. And yet despite those immense odds, these underdogs pulled it off. How?

I think part of the answer can be found by looking at the equally demanding world of the NFL – specifically the surprising career paths of current head coaches. Because it turns out that an unusually high percentage  (nine at last count, including the Tony Sprarano of the Dolphins, Brad Childress of the Vikings, and Mike McCarthy of the Packers) share an interesting quirk on their resume: they sll started out on the bottom rung of the pro-coaching ladder, working as quality-control coaches.

Quality-control is not a sought-after job. It’s frequently the lowest-paid member of the staff. Q-C coaches spend their days sitting in a room watching game tape, compiling data, analyzing film, producing 50-page scouting reports for coaches to use, and, yes, occasionally fetching coffee for the “real coaches.”

“We worked quadruple everybody else, but we got to feel like a coach,” said Todd Haley, now the coach in Kansas City, who worked in quality control with the Jets. “We had responsibility. It’s the greatest job in football as far as learning.”

We usually think of leadership as being an innate talent, stemming from such intangibles as “charisma, “vision” and “character.” But the success of these underdogs from the mailroom and Q-C  coaching flips this idea on its head. The leadership talents of these CEOS and NFL head coaches is not being born; it’s being grown. They are positioning themselves smack-dab in the middle of the information flow, and they are working that flow like a training session to change their brains.

To understand how this works, let’s look at a typical day in the life of a mailroom worker and compare it to that of a higher-up.

The higher-up is insulated in their job, cocooned by the responsibilities of the day. Their advancement depends on performing a narrow job well and being recognized for doing so, usually by his or her immediate boss.

The mailroom underdog, on the other hand, roves around like a spy, able to peer into the organization’s inner workings (not least by reading mail and hearing gossip). They are the proverbial fly on the wall inside the offices of the powerful. They can learn the anatomy of disasters and successes. They can navigate a maze of personalities; witness communication skills. They can learn the crucial dividing line between what matters and what doesn’t. Their advancement doesn’t depend on performing a narrowly defined task for a narrow audience; rather, it depends on their impressing someone – anyone, really – of their general-purpose savvy and chutzpah.

In short, the underdog isn’t really an underdog — they’re the overdog. For a person of the right mindset – like former Paramount/Fox CEO Barry Diller – this spot is the perfect neural-training camp.

“My great strategy was to take what was seen as the worst job in the building — photocopying I’d collect things to copy, along with as much of the file room as I could carry, and hole myself up reading through the history of the entertainment business as seen through every deal, every development, every contract I read their entire file room.”

That’s not to say personal characteristics don’t count, because they do. Diller, like all of these successful underdogs, is hugely ambitious, persistent, and hardworking to the extreme. But here’s the point: so are a lot of other people. These underdog groups succeed in disproportionate numbers because they channel that energy through a grid of intensive training to make their brains fast, accurate, and organization-smart.

An increasing number of companies seem to understand this. GE’s Crotonville Leadership Development Center is a now-legendary pioneer in this area. Hindustan Unilever, a hugely successful Indian company, is widely regarded as a talent hotbed –largely because its senior managers spend 30 to 40 percent of their time mentoring young leaders.

So what’s the takeaway from all this? It depends who you are.

For organizations:

  • Construct a virtual mailroom,  a training program that allows young employees to learn – through real-world experience, not lectures – how leadership really works.
  • Consider leadership-mentoring programs.

For individuals:

  • Judge early jobs by their position in the information flow, not by prestige or salary.
  • Create your own training regimen. Whether it’s photocopying contracts or making predictions and seeing how they turn out, it doesn’t matter so long as its yours.

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7 Responses to “Building a Leader’s Brain: The Underdog Plan”

  1. Paul Clarke says:

    Great read Dan. It’s really all comes down to accepting that every day has to be a school-day; we simply must learn, learn and learn from everything we experience and as often as possible, even from the seemingly menial tasks . I think the really clever ones log these learnings and refer back to them and build on them time and time again.

  2. Michael Brown says:

    Basically, you are arguing that mailroom workers are over represented in the ranks of ceo’s? And your evidence for this is that a google search turns 3145 hits? When you take into account the millions of successful CEOs throughout history, statistically, this adds up to no evidence at all. Look, busting conventional wisdom is fun, but the conventional wisdom that the vast majority of mailroom workers will never be CEOs remains rock solid. As for the individuals that did work their way up from the mailroom, I would suggest to you that they had leadership qualities that would have resulted in swift career advancement anyway. If you measured their career advancement against individuals with similar scores on IQ and personality tests, you will probably find the conventional wisdom is correct- that starting off in the mail room was a retardent and not an advantage in their career trajectory.

  3. djcoyle says:

    You raise a great question. If there were a formal study of this, it would be great. But lacking that, we’ve got patterns — and I would argue that these patterns are worth examining.
    Let’s take the William Morris Agency for example. Here are some of the people who came through their mailroom over the past 40 years, according to Wikipedia:
    Michael Ovitz – co-founder of Creative Artists Agency and former president of Walt Disney Company
    Michael Eisner – former CEO of Walt Disney Company and Paramount Pictures
    David Geffen – “G” in Dreamworks SKG and founder of Geffen Records and Asylum Records
    Jeffrey Katzenberg – “K” in Dreamworks SKG and CEO of DreamWorks Animation
    George Shapiro – executive producer of Seinfeld
    Anne Carey – producer of The Laramie Project and The Savages
    Ben Silverman – co-chairman of NBC and executive producer of The Office
    Peter Shaw – former head of MGM Studios
    Ron Meyer – co-founder of Creative Artists Agency and president of Universal Studios
    Abe Lastfogel – former owner of William Morris Agency and organizer of USO
    Al Brodax – producer of Yellow Submarine and Popeye
    Bryan Lourd – co-chairman of Creative Artists Agency
    Bernie Brillstein – executive producer of Saturday Night Live and Ghostbusters
    Wally Amos – founder of Famous Amos
    Barry Diller – former CEO of Paramount Pictures, Fox Broadcasting Company and USA Networks, chairman of InterActiveCorp
    Helen Gurley Brown – long time editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan[6]
    Joe Wizan – director of Along Came a Spider and …And Justice for All
    Robert Shapiro – former president of theatrical film production at Warner Bros.
    Jack Rapke – producer of Cast Away and What Lies Beneath
    Mike Rosenfeld – co-founder of Creative Artists Agency
    Kevin Huvane – managing partner of Creative Artists Agency
    Cary Woods – producer of Godzilla and Scream
    Nick Stevens – co-owner of United Talent Agency
    Irwin Winkler – producer of Rocky, Raging Bull, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Goodfellas

    Now maybe this kind of phenomenon is limited to a few companies who embrace this kind of culture. And maybe, as you suggest, there is an even longer list of people who were hired at higher positions who ended up outdoing these people. But until we’ve got an actual empirical study of these things, we’ll have to work with these patterns. And while it’s far from definitive, I find it intriguing.

  4. Michael Brown says:

    Actually, I believe what you are talking about are observations and not patterns. At any rate, you’re right and there has been no empiricial studies on the subject, and therefore no data by which our competing predictions could be put to the test. Care for a friendly wager?

  5. djcoyle says:

    I’m in! Now we need to find a Freakonomics-like researcher to look into this. All nominations now being accepted.

  6. That’s a very nice point about mailroom folks being able to peer into so many different areas. It’s actually a fine training ground for the right sort of ambitious, Sammy Glick personalities. There’s an interesting parallel with the rise of Lech Walesa and other Solidarity activists in Poland — whose seemingly unglamorous job gave him a chance to meet EVERYBODY. (Here’s a quote from a New Yorker writer’s NPR interview a while back.)

    LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Why was it that the early Solidarity activists all came from either the plumbers or the electricians of these factories? They weren’t the people who had to stay at one machine all day long. They were the people who knew the whole factory.

  7. djcoyle says:

    That’s a really interesting connection — and it makes sense. Taking it further, I wonder if this kind of leadership development happens more often in youthful organizations — where the boundaries tend to be more fluid — than in older ones?

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