Are good business leaders born or made in the trenches? Early work experience forges how a person will lead. For many successful CEOs, starting out on the company’s bottom rung has been an invaluable opportunity for learning.

For example, David Cote started out at General Electric as an hourly employee when he was 21. By age 33, he’d worked his way up to a midlevel financial planner role and soon thereafter became CFO, overseeing 200 employees. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon began even earlier, loading trucks at a Walmart distribution center as a teen.

The early chapters of their careers allowed these executives-to-be to see all levels of operations, informing their views of effective leadership and what it takes to keep a business running.

The View from the Top

Jason McCann, CEO of active workspace furniture company Varidesk, believes a good leader should get an opportunity to work in all parts of the business. Not only does that provide insight into every corner of operations, but it bolsters employees’ confidence in a leader. They value someone who’s walked in their shoes — and who is still willing to pitch in at any level.

“Even now, I won’t ask anyone at Varidesk to do something I won’t do myself,” McCann says. “I started my career by working a broom, and I’m not so important that I won’t do my part to make sure our workspace is neat and tidy. It is imperative we lead by example.”

Whether you began your climb on the lowest rung or not, you can certainly foster this mindset in your leadership practice now. Here’s how to adopt a bottom-up approach if you didn’t get your start by “working a broom.”

1. Look for innovative ideas from everyone.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, named by Fortune as the “most underrated CEO” for three years in a row, has manned the helm at Microsoft as it reported record year-end earnings and briefly bested Apple as the world’s most valuable company. A major element of Nadella’s effectiveness is his willingness to take ideas for innovation from any internal source.

Nadella joined Microsoft back in 1992 and has always looked for ideas across the company. His experience at different levels has driven his goal “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” One example of this ideal in practice is Microsoft’s hackathons. These private events empower employees of all levels and talents (not just coders) to collaborate on impactful projects like Seeing AI and Learning Tools for OneNote, both of which make the company’s products more accessible.

Laura Rittenhouse, a leadership and investor relations coach, sees this spirit of drawing from all parts of the company as key to his success: “Perhaps Nadella is ranked most underrated because he puts others ahead of himself. Or perhaps he represents a new breed of CEO needed in the 21st century.”

2. Connect with your company’s culture.

Even if you haven’t worked there for decades, you can still engage in your company’s culture, and it’s important that you do. Culture engagement gives you a chance to learn from your employees while allowing them to see you as a genuine team player.

Your engagement should go beyond signing up for the dunking booth at the company picnic. Consider inviting lower-level staff members to executive roundtable meetings or providing a sign-up sheet with limited slots so everyone can get the chance to join in. You could also host open forums in which all employees can participate and connect with the highest levels of leadership for Q&A sessions. You might even want to send a calendar link that employees can use to book time during your office hours. In general, encouraging an open-door policy affords leaders ample opportunities to connect with employees.

Erin Urban, founder of UPPSolutions, stresses how vital that connection can be: “Most CEOs are distant and removed from the people who make the business happen. The most impactful CEOs make a point of personally connecting with the culture to cultivate trust.”

3. Nurture a spirit of curiosity.

One of the best ways to enhance engagement is by always remaining curious. Great CEOs aren’t satisfied with trite answers and tired assumptions. Instead, they ask questions to shed light on their C-suite blind spots.

SurveyMonkey CEO Zander Lurie has baked that quizzical attitude right into his company. He’s rewarded curiosity by celebrating an employee “question of the week” at town halls. He also implemented a peer recognition program for praising those who demonstrate respectful but direct candor.

The enthusiasm for curiosity is reflected in the many #greatquestion comments in the company’s Slack discussions. “At SurveyMonkey that’s one of the highest compliments you can pay someone,” says Lurie. To show how important question-asking is, Lurie hosts candid skip-level meetings with employees. Plus, he interviews mentors and idols as part of a monthly speaker series.

You may not be able to start at the bottom, but you can always adopt the same open, engaged attitude as leaders who had that chance. Welcome input from all corners of your company while staying connected and curious — and encourage others to do the same. You’ll join a remarkable group of leaders leveraging talent and innovation from all levels of their organizations.



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