Unusual road to the corner office: Career Guide 2014

Some of the best lessons for young PR pros come from industry leaders. And none have a background quite like Golin CEO Fred Cook, who shares 10 unique career tips that have helped propel his long, distinguished career.

Fred Cook
Fred Cook

1. Expose yourself.
People entering the business world today are a commodity. They’ve gone to the same schools, taken the same courses, read the same books, and watched the same movies. Meanwhile, companies such as mine are desperately seeking fresh minds to help them navigate massive cultural and technological changes. Where will they find them?

Growing up in a small town in southern Indiana, I led the middle-class life of Beaver Cleaver until I was kicked off the high school tennis team. Then my real education began. I replaced Harrison High School with Arc Lanes, a modern entertainment mecca featuring 15 pool tables, where a faculty of dropouts and derelicts with names such as Red Dog, Baby Pod, and Fat Beckham introduced me to a new curriculum of hustling, drinking, smoking, cruising, fighting, and sex.

You need to expose yourself. Think of your life as a big magazine rack. Resist the normal impulse to reach for People or Cosmopolitan. Instead, grab a copy of Game Informer, Inked, Guns and Ammo, or Bass Fisherman. Apply the same approach to movies, books, and people. Whether you’re looking for your first job or your fifth, you’ll benefit from exploring unusual ideas and engaging unconventional individuals. If you experiment with your life, you’ll learn a lot about yourself and the rest of the human race.

2. Hit the road.
Americans are a sedentary lot. Only one out of three have a passport. Less than 5% travel overseas each year. As a result, they know less about the rest of the world than the rest of the world.

Selling expensive leather wallets to unsuspecting tourists in Florence, Italy, I learned why Americans are afraid to travel. Foreign businessmen like my boss Enzo were just waiting to rip them off. In two-thirds of the world, "bargaining" is an art. You need to learn the regional ropes by studying or working abroad because every employer is banking on international sales to fuel their future. If you want to compete in the global economy, you’ve got to hit the road.

3. Ask the captain.
Knocking on a captain's door opened a new world for me. While my contemporaries were graduating from college, I talked my way into a job as a cabin boy on a Norwegian tanker bound for Asian destinations I’d never imagined. In your career, you will encounter "ships" that can transport you to unexpected places. You just have to figure out how to ask the captain. 

Senior executives are intimidating to those just starting out. But they’re the ones who can have a real impact on your career. Stalk them in the hallways. Corner them at events. Drill them with smart questions. Ask for their help. If you want to be a captain tomorrow, you should start by asking one a question today.

4. Listen to a guru.
Listening is a critical skill for any aspiring CEO. Today, however, it’s a lost art. High in the Himalayas, a guru taught me the secret to listening. As we walked together down a crowded street, the "Hippie Guru of Darjeeling" promoted his psychic credentials and his mastery of the spiritual world, either trying to impress me or to scam a few rupees. When I jokingly accused him of lying, this little old man responded with a hard left hook to my jaw, teaching me a valuable lesson. Sometimes you should just shut up

If you’re not talking or texting, a miraculous thing happens – you actually hear what the other person is saying. If you’re in an interview, turn off your phone. If you’re in a meeting, take handwritten notes. If you’re in a conversation, listen for the meaning between the words. There are times to assert your opinions and times when it’s better to be quiet. When you’re tempted to interrupt one of your coworkers, bosses, or clients, consult your inner guru. You may avoid getting punched in the mouth.

5. Enlist an entourage.
Behind every famous person there is a team of highly paid professionals dedicated to keeping them in the spotlight. After a few fun but frustrating years running a small record company in Bloomington, IN, I realized it was futile to be doing management, publicity, promotion, distribution, and representation all by myself. My failure taught me that if I ever wanted to be successful, I would need a lot of help.

No matter how talented you are, you will always be competing with people who have more experience and better connections. If you really want to get to the top, you need to start recruiting your entourage now. Someday you may be able to afford a PR firm to polish your brand, but until then you need to leverage your family, friends, and coworkers to make you shine.

6. Work for tips.
This year, 85% of the 3.2 million US students who graduate from college will move back home – and 22% won't be able to get a job. Of those who are able to find employment, more than 50% will work as waitresses and baristas. Any graduate who is one of them is lucky.

Customer service is the heart of business. Every CEO needs to know how to keep his customers happy. Like most people pursuing a career in the entertainment industry, I had to find a way to support myself. My first paying job in the City of Angels was working as a doorman at a five–star hotel. There I learned the secret to customer service is the little things, such as remembering people’s names.

If you’ve worked for tips, you have an advantage over the average executive. You understand what people want. You recognize the little things that make them happy. And you know how to solve their problems. You just have to figure out how to make those tips work for you.

7. Turn ideas into reality.
We all dream up ideas for new products and services. However, we rarely make them happen because we’re afraid to fail.

My concept of the "Sober Chauffeur, a Discrete Service for the Drinking Class" was brilliant. After a few drinks, patrons called our number and we sent a uniformed chauffeur to drive them home in the comfort of their own car. Unfortunately, drunks are unreliable customers.

Don’t be afraid to translate your ideas into reality. If you become an entrepreneur, one of three things will happen. You’ll dream up a brilliant scheme and venture capitalists will write you big checks. Or you’ll create a more modest enterprise delivering just enough profit to pay your rent.  Or, like me, you’ll lose a little money and gain a lot of experience that you’ll leverage to get a stable job at an established company.

Today, most people get their first taste of business through internships, which are mandatory for goal-oriented college students. Being an entry-level employee at someone else’s company will teach you a lot about business, but imagine how much you might learn from being president of your own.

8. Improvise.
Many job hunters worry they lack the necessary credentials. Those hoping to change careers are concerned their experience isn’t relevant. These are legitimate fears, but they can be overcome. When you reach the top, everything you say and do will be scrutinized by the press and the public. Luckily, on the way up nobody pays much attention, which allows those of us who lack the standard business prerequisites to improvise.

Lack of experience didn’t inhibit my pursuit of a career in the travel industry. I created a résumé that carefully reshaped my exploits as a cabin boy, doorman, and chauffeur to land a job as a tour guide. Then I packed my suitcase with a dozen guidebooks about stops on our trip that I’d never visited. I discovered that with a little preparation and a lot of creativity, I could confidently lead people through unfamiliar territory.

Most people think improvising means making things up. I prefer a different definition – creating something special from whatever ordinary ingredients happen to be available. Whether you’re grasping for your first job or hanging onto your last, improvisation is a mandatory business skill. Because when technology, economics, and politics change as often as Facebook profiles, being president of a company or a country is a lot like being a tour guide who doesn't know exactly where he or she is going.

9. Turn nightmares into dreams.
Fifty percent of college graduates are working at jobs that don’t require a college degree. Seventy-five percent of Americans say they would change jobs tomorrow if they could. These are discouraging statistics, but don’t give up just because your current employment isn’t ideal. I used my nightmare job to practice for my dream one.

As one of the few young male substitute teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School district, I volunteered for assignments in inner-city high schools, where I received combat pay to instruct gang members in South Central on the finer points of auto mechanics and home economics. I really wanted to work in PR, but since I didn’t have enough experience to start a career, I practiced PR at school.

When Los Angeles hosted the Olympics, the entire community was shocked when the Soviet Union announced its plan to boycott the event on the phony premise that the city was too dangerous. Although I wasn’t interested in the politics behind this decision, I used the opportunity to mount a student letter-writing campaign that generated massive positive publicity for one of the poorest schools in the city. While I was teaching kids English, I taught myself PR. I leveraged that experience to start a new career.

Instead of wasting time bemoaning a job you hate, focus on honing the skills you need for the job you want. With a little imagination, you can reinvent your current job or invent a new one somewhere else.

10. Make the rules.
Most executives rise to the top by adapting to their company’s culture, by meeting quarterly financial goals, and by not getting fired. They follow a well-worn path that includes stops at an Ivy League college, Brooks Brothers, the BMW dealer, and the local country club. How does someone from outside the corporate fraternity get accepted into this exclusive pledge class and ultimately advance to the executive suite? It took me 15 years to figure that out.

At age 36, when I finally landed my first PR agency job, I volunteered for every boring assignment. Once I made myself indispensible, instead of asking for promotions, I asked for opportunities – on other accounts, in other business units, in other offices, and, as a last resort, in other companies. Every offer helped me advance to the next level until I eventually became CEO.

The business world is full of rules. Some succeed by following them, others by breaking them. You have to find the right balance. If you break all the rules, you may frighten people. But if you make your own rules, they may not even notice.

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