Fortune 500 CEOs and top execs reveal what to do in your 20s to set yourself up for an awesome career

Sheryl Sandberg FacebookKevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesSheryl Sandberg’s advice to 20-somethings: take big risks and find a rocket ship.

If you want to run the business world someday, you need to start building an awesome career for yourself early.

Current and former Fortune 500 executives have given some great career advice on Business Insider’s podcast, “Success! How I Did It.”

From Sheryl Sandberg to Steve Ballmer, we pulled the best advice they gave for 20-somethings who have big business ambitions.

And if you’re hunting for more career advice, be sure to subscribe to the podcast on Acast or iTunes so you don’t miss the next interview.

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Oath CEO Tim Armstrong tells his kids to be true to themselves, and to be honest with others

Tim Armstrong, CEO of Oath, which oversees Yahoo and AOL under Verizon. Before Oath and AOL, Armstrong was an executive at Google.

Tim Armstrong: To thine own self be true. What you see is what you get. If you interact with me, this is who I am, love me or hate me. And I think being authentic is important.

The second thing is, the mentor crew I have. I have a bunch of advice I always give to younger people, but one of them is to build your personal entourage or board of directors.

I have five or eight people outside the company I rely on. I have one person, David Bell, who used to be the CEO of IPG. He's in our office almost every day. I meet with him every Friday. And every Friday he starts by telling me everything I'm doing wrong overall. For me, it's the most helpful meeting of the week because it always resets me back to, 'OK, what am I supposed to be doing as a leader? What's my job? What are those things?' If you're yourself, and you're authentic, and you're honest and direct.

The other thing I've learned from David and people like (former Starbucks CEO) Howard Schultz and (American Express CEO) Ken Chenault and other people like that who have mentored me over time is, just be direct with people.

I did an all-company meeting with AOL and Yahoo yesterday. I got asked if there are going to be impacts from doing the deal. I said, 'Yes, there are. That's what happens when two companies come together.'

I'm not going to beat around the bush. We're going to try to do the least amount we possibly can, but the bottom line is, that's part of what's happening with the deal and I want to be direct about it. So that directness, I think, helps a lot, and being honest with yourself.

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Former Apple CEO and Pepsi president John Sculley says it helps to think like an entrepreneur, and to always look for a better way to do things.

Brad Barket / Stringer / Getty Images

John Sculley: I was always insatiably curious. I still am. I kept observing -- when I was working in bottling plants, resetting shelves in supermarkets, out on the trade, talking to other Pepsi bottlers, observing, thinking, asking questions, you know. Why is it done this way?

I think that, while I didn't know what the word 'entrepreneur' was at that time, it's exactly the characteristics that I look for when I'm looking for really good entrepreneurs to lead companies because you have to have an inquiring mind, you have to say there must be a better way to do things, and now with technology at a point where everything is possible, how do we turn the possible into the probable?

And it all starts with a passion to do something really well, to solve a problem in a way that's never been solved before, and to have just an incredible work ethic, to be persistent.

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Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, who built a $10 billion company in his 20s, says it's never too early to get started and to figure out what you want to be doing five years from now.

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Drew Houston: It really helps to start the clock early, and it really helps to think about -- again be systematic about learning. So what that means in practice is, I've always found it valuable to ask myself, 'One year from now, two years from now, five years from now, what will I wish I had been learning today?' And what would have been a relief to my 24-year-old self is a couple things.

First, no one is born a CEO. This is an acquired skill set, and, furthermore, it's one that you learn on the job. So everybody is a first-time CEO by definition at some point.

Second, just about everything is learnable. I started out just on the engineering side. I had no real business experience. I literally went to Amazon and typed in 'sales' or 'marketing' or 'strategy' and would just buy the couple top-rated books, and that's what I would do on the roof of the fraternity. I would just read.

But whether it's just the fundamentals of business or things like public speaking or being more inspiring or being a better leader, these are all things you can get better at with practice. You should set your sights high in terms of what you aspire to do, but you also have to be patient. It's like playing an instrument. You're not going to be great as a public speaker, or you're not going to improve a lot in five days, but in five years, you might be really surprised at how much you can improve.

...I think the recipe to get into school is, check all these boxes and get ready, get ready, get ready. But real life doesn't work like that.

So instead of getting ready, what you really want to do is get started.

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Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says it's important to take risks and to find a company that's a rocket ship.

Paul Morigi/Getty Images for FORTUNE

Sheryl Sandberg: It really was about getting on a rocket ship, being willing to take risks and do something that I hadn't done before like work in technology, and finding the ways to start believing in myself.

One thing that's worth thinking about, if you're in your 20s and you're a woman particularly, but we have men too, are 'Lean In' circles. There are 33,000 all over the world. We grow by almost 100 a week. We hear over and over again how much they work because they give women an explicit place to be ambitious and to support each other. None of us get through anything alone.

I'm a big believer that we have to commit to things and make them a regular habit in order to make them work. An explicit place, particularly for women, to dream big is really important.

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Clippers owner and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says to find something you're passionate about, that makes you want to live to work.

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Steve Ballmer: No. 1, find something to do that you're passionate about. If you're not passionate, I can't imagine how anybody can get there. There are two kinds of people. My son will tell me this, 'Dad, there are people who live to work and there are people who work to live,' and I respect both of those things. But if you're trying to have a career, you're going to have a little bit more live-to-work in you than work-to-live. So passion.

No. 2, evidence that in hard work, evidence that in good thought and good thinking -- but be lucky. I know Microsoft's a talented company, we have very talented people. I certainly felt like I worked hard and had some good ideas as did Bill Gates and Paul Allen. But if anybody says there's no luck involved, I don't believe that. There is some luck. There's no, what was it, George Bernard Shaw? 'Man and Superman.'

No, there are people who are willing to work a little harder, willing to be a little smarter, and still don't have success. And some people do and there's a luck element that distinguishes those. I'd probably highlight those things: hard work, good ideas, and put yourself in a position to get lucky, if you will. I think that that's very important.

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BONUS: As Dropbox CEO Drew Houston points out, no one is born a CEO. But you can learn to be a great one. NBA star LeBron James says anyone can learn to be a leader, it just takes confidence and practicing what you preach.

Ezra Shaw/Getty

LeBron James: I think you have to accept it. Some people were born with it, but some people learn it as well. For me, as the leader of our franchise and the leader of my household and the leader of so many different things, I think it's about confidence but also practicing what you preach.

I'm not a guy who just talks about it. I actually go out and do it as well, from a basketball perspective, or from a leadership perspective, or my kids at my foundation. We have a promise initiative (at my foundation), where the kids promise me they will go to school, that they will listen to their teachers, that they will be great to their classmates. And I promise them that I will continue to be a great role model, a father figure for them, and not let those guys down. So I take that responsibility, and I don't just talk about it -- I actually do it as well.

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