Jeremy Zimmer started working in gas stations when he was 14. By 16 he was managing them. He dropped out of college at 19. “I was always a good worker, but I was never a very good student.” He was running several valet parking stations in Boston.
This snippet of a man’s life has all of the earmarks of a person who never reached his full potential; he probably ended up as a blue collar working stiff living in a row house with a wife and two kids. Except that is not how this man’s life worked out. He was featured in Adam Bryant’s Corner Office interview in Sunday’s New York Times.
Today, Jerry Zimmer is founder and Chief Executive Officer of United Talent Agency, one of the largest talent and literary agencies in the world with more than 135 agents representing the likes of Johnny Depp, Barbara Streisand, Gwyneth Paltrow, Harrison Ford, Anthony Hopkins, January Jones, Don Cheadle and Joe and Ethan Coen, aka the Coen Brothers. By all accounts, Mr. Zimmer is a huge success, sans a Harvard or Stanford MBA, or a college degree for that matter.
He was a good worker, got a break or two – he started in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency — and made the most of each opportunity. He produced results and treated people well along the way. He had to learn some tough lessons in the ego department – he learned what he did not know and stopped thinking of himself as a genius.
Gordon Bethune, the legendary former CEO of Continental Airlines, was one of the most successful airline executives, taking Continental from a financial and service disaster to one of the top performers and most respected of the legacy air carriers. He was rated a commercial airline pilot and a licensed airframe and power plant mechanic.
Zimmer and Bethune have two things in common: the people who work with and for them hold their bosses in very high regard. Both are legends in their respective industries. They walk their talk in terms of values and performance.
But neither has a graduate degree, a supposed requisite to be CEO of a major company.
When I see executive candidates add the MBA, MHA or MSN after their names at the top of the resume, I pause. What are they trying to broadcast? That they are competent, that they have built an enviable record of performance? Well, that is a waste of time and space. The degree is not a professional credential nor is it a reflection of your ability as a leader. It is just a ticket that the vast majority of executives get punched on their way to the executive office. Truth is, you can have five degrees and 10 credentials but if you do not treat people well and produce results, you will be just an unemployed, or marginally employed, “specialist.”
During Bethune’s tenure as Chairman and CEO, Continental produced outstanding results and was a frequent member of Fortune Magazine’s Best Places to Work in America. Today, former Continental employees – now flying under the United Airlines name after a merger – speak of him with enormous respect.
His legacy is that of a good leader. What will your legacy be? That you have an MBA?