Carnival's CEO overcame a common career dilemma to run a $48 billion company

Arnold Donald, president and chief executive officer of Carnival Corp., speaks during a keynote event at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017.
Bloomberg | Getty Images

It's a harsh reality that many of us have felt mistreated or undermined at work.

A recent survey from job site TopResume suggests that as many as 71 percent of U.S. employees feel they've been bullied by a boss or direct supervisor at one time or another.

For Arnold Donald, CEO of the world's largest leisure travel company Carnival, it was no different.

Carnival CEO on travel, leadership and diversity
Carnival CEO on travel, leadership and diversity

When he took his first job at agricultural biotech company Monsanto during his 20's, Donald said his then-boss seemed to take a disliking to him, referring to him only as Nick (the name of his predecessor), and putting him on an account that was "doomed to fail."

But rather than letting it get to him, Donald said it drove him to focus even more closely on his end goal.

"I could have complained and said, 'Oh my gosh, this guy's a racist, he's this, he's that.' (But) my job was, 'I have an account. What's going to help the shareholders?'" Donald told CNBC's "Fortt Knox" program this month.

Famously, at the age of 16, Donald set his sights on becoming the general manager of a Fortune 50 science-based global company.

Speaking to host Jon Fortt, Donald said that even today, he doesn't know how he came up with that specific target. "I had no idea what it was when I said it," he joked. But he noted that having that defined target helped him focus on the steps required to get there — especially when the going got tough.

"I realized early on, from reading and stuff, that the prime directive of any capitalistic, publicly traded company in a capitalist society is (to) maximize return to shareholders. So I looked at my job that way," said Donald.

Carnival Cruise Line CEO Arnold Donald and Carnival President Christine Duffy perform in a Lip Sync Battle as part of the naming celebration for the Carnival cruise ship Horizin on May 23, 2018 in New York City.
Gary Miller | Getty Images

"I didn't look at my job as pleasing my boss. I didn't look at my job as who am I going to network with. I looked at, 'How am I, in the role I have, going to visibly maximize return to shareholders?'"

That underlying purpose and unwavering focus enabled Donald to look past the mistreatment, save the account, and ultimately reach his career goal at the age of 32.

"It all happened because I focused on the right thing," said the now-64-year-old. "Not the personalities, not the stuff that was going on. I focused on prime directive: Maximize return for the shareholders."

He added that undergoing that experience taught him one of the "best lessons" of his early career.

'Like a father'

As soon as it was clear what Donald had achieved, his boss apologized and explained that he had not intended a personal attack — rather his behavior was a result of internal politics with his superiors. That boss, Donald said, later became "like a father," helping him progress up the ranks at Monsanto.

"It's easy to assign motivation to behavior, and when you do that you're assigning it and that may not really be the motivation," said Donald, explaining that it's important to listen and figure out the true source of the problem.

"You just got to listen," he continued. "And people that you think are undermining you or are against you, especially listen to them."

"Don't do what they say, but hear them, engage with them. Meet with them to figure out what about me is triggering that reaction in you. Not like I'm arguing with it or saying that they shouldn't, but because I want to learn about me," he said.

"Maybe there's something I can change and I should change. Why do I want to go around upsetting people? Maybe it's something I can't change or I don't want to change but no the power's in me because I know what it is."

Donald added that even today, as CEO of a $48 billion cruise line company, he continues to draw on that experience and listen to all feedback to help him and his team move forward.

October marks National Bullying Prevention Month in the U.S. If you feel you are being mistreated at work, you can get in touch with CNBC Make It's workplace advice column, Work It Out. Contact us on Facebook or send us an email anonymously at workitout@cnbc.com.

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