Posted by Jonathan Crossfield on 18 February 2014
It’s become a bit of a career cliché to talk about starting in the mailroom and working one’s way up to the top-floor office with the big brass plaque on the door.
Is it merely a comforting fairy tale told by careers advisors to students crushed by the reality of their employment prospects? Or do mailroom CEOs actually exist?
Dick Grasso: Determined to learn and grow
In 1968, a young Dick Grasso started as a floor clerk at the New York Stock Exchange. He had no college degree and came from a working-class background, yet he had determination coupled with a thriving interest in business.
Grasso spent his time constantly looking for opportunities to learn and do more, enabling him to rise rapidly through the ranks. By the mid-1990s, Grasso was chief executive of the NYSE, helping to turn the Exchange into one of the biggest icons of global commerce.
David Geffen: Networking to the top
Geffen may be one of the world’s biggest media moguls today, but he started out as a college dropout with little to offer employers. But Geffen knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. He just needed to get on the inside to make it happen.
Geffen eventually gained a position as a mailroom clerk with talent agency William Morris. His choice of mailroom was no accident, as Geffen was determined to build the network of connections he needed to eventually become a talent agent himself.
His approach worked. He not only became a talent agent within a few years, but his powerful network of contacts became the foundation of a career that led to the launch of Asylum Records, then Geffen Records and, finally, co-founding the DreamWorks SKG studio with Steven Spielberg and Jeffery Katzenberg.
Having a plan
There are many more examples of top-ranking execs starting out as interns, lift operators, doormen and, yes, mailroom clerks. But it takes more than just an entry-level position in a big company to launch a career.
It has to be the right mailroom, for one thing. What industry are you trying to get inside? Which company mailroom will bring you into contact with the right people? And what is your backup plan if your chosen mailroom turns out to be a dead end?
Getting out of the mailroom and on the next career rung is a big challenge that may require further study. It isn’t enough to merely do well at your mailroom job. Be prepared for overtime, night study and going above and beyond whenever you can if you want the right people to notice you.
Getting into the mailroom may create more opportunities to help you along the way, but you still need to learn, act and work hard to turn those opportunities into a successful career.