Even top executives have to start somewhere, and often it's right down at the bottom.
McDonald's chief executive Michael Quinlan, for example, started up the ladder sorting mail for $2 an hour.
The chief of Yahoo!, Timothy Koogle, graduated from college to a job repairing farm machinery
Shelly Lazarus, chairman of advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, spearheaded the launch of a new freeze-dried coffee for General Foods - as an intern.
Indeed those first jobs made a lasting impression on many of today's top business leaders - not because of what they earned but what they learned.
Namely, you have to love what you do; you have to work harder than the next guy; and you better keep a sense of humor.
In the words of Time Warner President Richard Parsons: "There is no guaranteed path to success ... but the most important thing is that you have to believe in yourself."
Ogilvy & Mather
Shelly Lazarus, chairman and chief executive officer, describes her initiation into the business world as being "thrown off the diving board and into the pool."
While earning her master's in business at Columbia University in New York, she took a four-month paid internship with General Foods as assistant product manager for Maxim freeze-dried coffee, a new product.
But just before Ms. Lazarus arrived, the two product managers on the account left for a four-month tour of duty in Vietnam.
"It was just me. I had no idea what I was doing for the first few weeks," she admits, "and because we were introducing a new product, no one had time to teach me."
She spent the next four months clocking 12-hour days, overseeing the promotion and packaging of Maxim and clearing a few legal hurdles. In the end, the launch was a success.
Upon receiving her MBA in 1970, she landed a job as an assistant product manager at Clairol. After about a year, she moved to ad agency Ogilvy as a junior account executive, where she has spent the past 25 years.
"I learned that so much of getting things done is about engaging people in your quest," Lazarus says. "You have to inspire people and ignite their imagination so that they want to help you."
"I also learned that you have to take responsibility for your own education [on the job]. Ask questions," she advises. "People respond to people who are interested in what they're doing."
Time Warner Inc.
Fresh out of Union University's Albany (N.Y.) Law School - and class valedictorian - Richard Parsons, president, landed a job as assistant counsel in the office of Nelson Rockefeller, then governor of New York State.
"Everybody was a star in that office, except me," he says. "I was the kid lawyer, and that's what they called me."
The counsel's office was in charge of hammering out the details of the governor's social programs and policies.
"Rockefeller was known for being an innovator," Mr. Parsons says, which kept everyone plenty busy.
When the legislature was in session six to seven months out of the year, he says, everyone worked 12- to 15-hour days, six or seven days a week. At the end of each session, there was the 30-day bill period, and the office worked around the clock.
But Parsons was hardly afraid of long hours. He put himself through the University of Hawaii working as a night manager in a bank parking lot in downtown Honolulu.
"The first day I showed up [in New York], they were in one of these 30-day bill periods," Parsons recalls. "I was ushered to a conference room and a senior attorney said, 'I'd love to show you around, but I don't have time. Here's some stuff. Do the best you can, and we'll have the orientation later.' " (The conference room table became his desk for a month.)
"It was like that for the first year and a half I was there," he says. "You did what you were assigned, and you had no idea if you were succeeding or failing."
"At the end of the day a job is a job. You've got to show up, work hard, and produce."
Michael Quinlan, chairman and chief executive officer, needed a job - and quick.
It was 1963. He was a sophomore at Loyola University in Chicago. He was broke.
"If I didn't get a job and make some money, I'd have to drop out of school," says Mr. Quinlan, the son of working-class parents.
He mentioned his troubles to a fraternity brother, who offered to help. The friend's mother was a secretary at McDonald's. Not just any secretary - she sat outside the office of Ray Kroc, the man who put the "big" in the house of Big Mac.
Quinlan went in to see the friend's mother, for what he thought was an interview. Instead, he recalls, she asked: "When would you like to start?"
"I was told there was plenty of work for me, as long as I worked hard and showed initiative."
Quinlan started sorting mail for $2 an hour. He worked 25 hours a week during the school year and full time in the summers. Eventually he got a promotion - to the stock room.
"One of the nice things about that job was that I got to meet everybody," he says.
Upon graduation, he joined McDonald's as an assistant buyer. Thirty-five years later, he's never worked anywhere else. He made chief executive in 1987.
"It's not what you do, it's the way you do it that counts," Quinlan says. "And you have to be patient and persistent. You have to never be satisfied with what you're currently doing."
Since Andrew Taylor, president and chief executive officer, was 16, he has worked in the family car-leasing business in St. Louis.
He started out like everyone else, washing and parking cars and waiting on customers. His father, Jack Taylor, started Enterprise back in 1957, but being the boss's son wasn't easy.
"I believe I had to work harder and stay later than anybody else just to be treated like anybody else," Mr. Taylor says. So after graduating from the University of Denver in 1970, he headed to San Francisco to work at RLM Leasing, an affiliate of Ford Motor Co.
"I was called an administrative assistant, which was French for 'Do anything and everything.' " He made coffee, picked up cars, waited on customers, and, yes, washed and parked cars.
"One day the boss said, 'We fired so-and-so, and we want you to go down and run the daily rental department.' "
The leasing company was located in a five-story building in downtown San Francisco.
The Lincoln-Mercury showroom was located on the first floor, while the leased cars were kept on the upper floors and moved to the street level via elevator.
"It might take an hour on a packed floor to move a car onto the elevator," says Taylor, adding that he sometimes had to move as many as 30 cars to get one out.
"It was harrowing for someone so young. It was like trying to untie a backlash on a fishing pole."
After three years, Taylor returned to the family business (taking a 25 percent pay cut). He was named chief operating officer in 1980 and then CEO in 1991.
"When I look back on that job, I learned a lot about customer service and working in a team."
"It's a constant challenge for us to [convince] people today that a variety of basic work is a great way to grow your career and your knowledge."
Timothy Koogle, chief executive, has been working practically his whole life.
At the seasoned age of 7, he launched an entrepreneurial career, going door-to-door in Alexandria, Va., offering to rake leaves or pull weeds. (As testament to future management prowess, he rallied a band of seven- year-olds to help.)
His father, a machinist for the US Navy, taught him to repair engines. At 15 - not legally old enough for a job - he received a special work permit from the county so he could repair equipment at the local McDonald's. He also pumped gas and fixed cars, then went on to put himself through the University of Virginia by fixing engines and doing engineering jobs for professors.
Fresh out of college, with a degree in mechanical engineering, he took a job with a local John Deere branch repairing farm equipment. A year later, he headed for Stanford University, earning a master's in mechanical engineering in nine months. He stayed on to get his doctorate and during that time started two businesses - rebuilding engines and building equipment for electronics manufacturers. He eventually sold the latter company to Motorola.
"The No. 1 thing my father taught me was to try to find what I really feel passionate about. If you feel passionate about something you'll probably be good at it, and if you're good at it, the rest will follow," he says. "Never, ever turn it around....
"He also taught me to make prudent choices, because you have to stay dry and eat."
Exodus Communications Inc.
For Ellen Hancock, president, it's been about doing it on her own.
After graduating from the College of New Rochelle, a Roman Catholic school for girls in her hometown of New Rochelle, N.Y., and then earning a master's degree in math from Fordham College, Ms. Hancock set out to find a job.
Her father was president of a New York advertising firm and had plenty of connections.
But Hancock had her sights set on IBM - a company that had never been a client of her father's. And she knew she wasn't interested in following Dad's footsteps onto Madison Avenue.
So she looked up IBM's address in the Yellow Pages, wrote a letter, and sent it off to the computer giant's corporate office in Armonk, N.Y., explaining that she wanted to work for Big Blue.
Within a few weeks, she landed an interview. She arrived at the company's palatial campus and was given a programmer aptitude test. She aced it. At the end of the day, IBM offered her a job, which she accepted on the spot.
"I was pleased I had done it on my own," Hancock says.
She started in the corporate information-systems division as a computer programmer and thrived on the work, clocking time late into the evening and on weekends.
"I used to take home computer printouts, spread them out on my bed, and work on debugging the software programs," she recalls.
Six months on the job, she met her husband-to-be. "It was a classic office romance," she quips.
Hancock spent 29 years at IBM, eventually running its networking division, a $5 billion, 15,000 employee operation. She has since held top spots at National Semiconductor and Apple Computer, and in March she was appointed president of Exodus Communications, an Internet service provider in Santa Clara, Calif.
"I tend to put in a lot of hours, regardless of where I work," but as a woman, she says, "you have to work harder than all the guys."