From Blue Collar to Blue Ties

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France Bloomberg
AP

For many Americans, rags to riches stories inspire us. We often criticize business leaders because we feel they don't understand how difficult the average workers' lives are. Yet among these stories, there are examples of individuals who came from humble backgrounds and managed to succeed.

It's a difficult transition. How can someone not feel different when mom and dad struggled, and suddenly they're the leader of a global company? The fight to obtain the success is daunting, but so is feeling part of the CEO world. These are stories of two individuals who made it despite humble backgrounds, and used their past to inspire them.

Michael Bloomberg, the former major of New York City, can be counted among these success stories. Before becoming a multi-billionaire and leader of America's largest and most prosperous city, Bloomberg was a kid from Medford, Massachusetts, a working class suburb of Boston. His father worked seven days a week as an accountant at a local daily farm to provide for the family.

Yet Bloomberg also recalls that his father remembered to be philanthropic, donating money to the NAACP every month. "He said it was because discrimination is against everybody," Bloomberg told NYMag. And Bloomberg remains one of the biggest philanthropic figures in the country. He gave $452 million through his Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2013 alone, according to his personal website.

Bloomberg didn't forget about giving back. Maintaining a sense of giving, as his father instilled in him, has allowed him to focus on many aspects of his business. It grounds him. He knows where he came from and where he's going. Keeping time for reflection can't be underestimated. It's a sense of consistency in many ways, that no matter how wealthy or how poor, keeps you focused. It also provides context to know how much more you can succeed.

Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks, has a similar story. His family also came from a blue-collar background. His father worked numerous jobs to support the family, none of which inspired him. When his father was injured on the job, he had no health insurance or worker's compensation. Most importantly to Schultz, his father never had a career he cared about.

Schultz realized he needed to do something he was truly invested in -- and it wasn't necessarily coffee. When Starbucks was struggling in 2007, Schultz understood the passion for the business had waned. "We had lost our way," he told Forbes in an interview. "The pursuit of profit became our reason for being and that's not the reason that Starbucks is in business...we're in the business of exceeding the expectations of our customers." A few years later, the company posted record profits.

Instead of focusing on merely selling a product, Schultz put his energy into giving customers what they already wanted -- and what they potentially wanted. This kind of risk/reward thinking has allowed Schultz to not only exceed the expectations of his customers, but exceed the expectations of those around him.

Blue-collar CEOs begin their career by surpassing expectations. The real trick though, is to maintain that drive.

There are two principles to draw from these stories.

First: remember.

Remember who and what helped you become a leader. Without this, you're dooming yourself. Think about how Howard Schultz's father lost his drive. In the same way Schultz's father didn't succeed in his career because of a lack of passion, so too can a CEO.

Second: reflect.

Without reflection, you'll hit a ceiling before you've ever really taken your career where you want. Bloomberg's father instilled a sense of giving in him, even when they didn't have much. Feeling grounded in context is important. You have to remember success is relative, and there's always room to grow.

For both Michael Bloomberg and Howard Schultz, these are lessons they've taken and transformed, becoming two of the greatest success stories in modern business. These are blue-collar to blue-ties stories that can help shape the future of American entrepreneurship.

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