Five Unusual Backgrounds for Business Leaders

There’s no single route to success when it comes to becoming a CEO. In fact, many different paths can lead to success in the business world. But some paths are lesser traveled than others. Read on for a roundup of five unexpected jobs once occupied by some of today’s biggest business leaders.

1. Park Ranger

Dermot O’Gorman is currently the CEO of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Australian arm, where he is the “environmental figurehead” for the organization and its critical mission of promoting the green message to people all over the world. However, he once was on the frontlines of the same fight in a very different way: as a park ranger.

Of his decision to leave his job with the parks department in New South Wales to pursue an MBA in Switzerland, O’Gorman told Financial Times, “[Dealing with] what was occurring outside the park was more useful to protect the park itself, rather than simply defending the park’s boundaries against urban development, invasive species and agricultural encroachment. You just end up defending islands.”

In particular, O’Gorman cites the project-based approach and internationalism of his MBA program as a boon. “[The MBA] was a hands-on 10 weeks and we were project-based, so we were constantly in teams working to build businesses or projects or work out how to solve problems. The international nature of the course was really impressive, so that was a distinct advantage — not only understanding how European people think, but people from all over the world as well,” he said.

2. Spy

Yes, you read that right. Sumner Redstone may have risen to become chairman of Viacom and CBS, but he began his career in WWII as part of an elite intelligence unit tasked with breaking the high-level military and diplomatic Japanese codes being transmitted back and forth by the Japanese.

In his autobiography, A Passion to Win, Redstone spoke of the intense effort the team put into learning both the Japanese language and culture, and of the payoffs that work yielded. “Breaking the Japanese code was one of the turning points of the war and I was proud to have made a small contribution to the effort,” he wrote.

3. Human Resources Manager

Mary Barra is the first woman ever to run a global automaker. She’s also unique in another respect: She worked in human resources along the way — which is something not many CEOs have on their resumes.

John Wood, vice chairman of executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles told The Washington Post of Barra’s HR history, “It’s not a typical career path to the CEO job. It happens more by exception.” Other exceptions include John Deere CEO Samuel R. Allen, Thomson Reuters CEO James C. Smith and Transocean CEO Steven L. Newman, according to The Post.

According to Wood, the skills honed in the HR office are handy ones for CEOs to have. “Every CEO needs to be in some sense the chief HR person. In most corporations, the talent — and the care and feeding of the talent — really is the primary job of the CEO,” he said.

4. Door-to-Door Salesman

As Co-founder, Chairman and CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings built Netflix — dubbed by Business Insider to be “one of the greatest underdog success stories at the crossroads of technology and television” — from the ground up through a rare combination of engineeing know-how and entrepreneurial zeal.

But when Netflix was still just a twinkle in his eye, Hastings had a very different type of first job: selling vacuum cleaners door to door. While this might sound like a chore to many people, it was a delight for Hastings — so much so that he deferred going to college for a year so he could continue selling vacuums. He later said of the job, “I loved it, strange as that might sound. You get to meet a lot of different people.”

5. Advertising Agency Executive

As CEO of gaming industry juggernaut Activision Publishing, Eric Hirschberg is touted for his innovation. Today, he credits his success to his earlier career on Madison Avenue. “In my life in advertising, I got very used to the pressure that comes from having to choose the right creative ideas. Your success and the success of the company depends on your ability to get the right ideas out of people, to make those ideas better and, ultimately, to identify the ones you’re going to bet on. So in that regard, my experience in advertising equipped me very well for being a corporate CEO. The difference is scale — the bets are just so much bigger.” Hirschberg told Adweek.

It may be challenging to transition from advertising leader to corporate CEO, but it shouldn’t be all that surprising that those who do often find success in their new roles. Recruiters praise their “increasingly multifaceted, digitally focused and brand-centric skill set” as CEO-worthy attributes in today’s business landscape,” according to Adweek.

But these five CEOs also have something else in common beyond their unusual career trajectories — perhaps the very thing that enabled them to make the leap from one ladder to another: Passion. Said Hastings, “Mine was a path of serendipity but it was a path of just being passionate about whatever I was doing at the time.”