GolinHarris CEO Fred Cook's Career Advice for Millennials: Improvise
Bruce Rogers Senior Contributor
I write about consumer behavior and business transformation.
My interview with GolinHarris CEO Fred Cook on the occasion of the publication of his new book "Improvise--Unconventional Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO."
Fred is a legend in the PR business and teamed up with another legend, Al Golin, to build GolinHarris into one of the top 10 largest PR firms in the world (now part of the IPG portfolio). Fred is anything but a typical CEO. As his book states: He barely graduated from college, never took a business course, had no corporate connections, didn't own a suite and rode a motorcycle. Along the way, he picked up skills in people-management, problem-solving, and most importantly, improvising--that ultimately led to a surprisingly rewarding career. He argues that the ability to improvise is a critical survival skill that will set young professionals apart from the pack and help them get ahead of the competition.
Fred Cook, CEO, GolinHarris
Fred Cook, CEO, GolinHarris
Bruce Rogers: You've had a long and storied career building your PR firm, what prompted you to write the book now?
Fred Cook: We have a very young workforce and I spend a lot of time speaking at college campuses. I find that younger people today are under an enormous stress about their futures. It dawned on me that my stories might be relevant to them because I had a very interesting career path and ended up becoming a CEO. People today don’t come into the workforce with very much life experience. They've all got four or five internships but they don’t know much about life. From a company’s perspective, I worry about finding fresh perspectives from people who all are sort of a commodity? From their perspective, I worry they’re afraid to have a new idea or to engage with new people who provide an enriching life and career.
Rogers: I would have thought millennials think they know a little bit about everything and all they need is someone to mentor them through their career path and they’ll be fine.
Cook: I was at this seminar recently and one of the presenters was a research company that said that 75 percent of millennials know exactly what they want to do when they’re in college and that they know exactly what they want to do when they grow up, and it’s just bull, – because they don’t. I’m at colleges all the time and these kids are under a lot of pressure and they don’t know exactly what they want to do, but they feel pressure to get the perfect job the day they graduate. That's just not realistic because half of them end up working at Starbucks SBUX +0%. I think they need to worry less and realize you that you can learn a lot from those kinds of experiences, even though they may not be exactly what you had hoped for.
Rogers: That’s interesting. I don’t think anyone has put that perspective forward before, that you should use your time at an ostensibly menial job wisely because you can use the life experience as a steppingstone, is that what you’re saying?
Cook: I have a chapter in my book called “Work For Tips” that talks specifically about that. I was a doorman for a couple of years. As someone who relied on tips, I learned a lot about problem-solving and how you put that to work in your career. I have another chapter called “Substitute” later in the book, which is when I was a substitute teacher in the worst schools in L.A., and how I used that job to teach myself public relations. I did all these PR programs for the school on my own time that were very rewarding and trained me in public relations when I was doing something that I really didn't enjoy, which was school teaching. If you get the wrong job, figure out what you can learn from of it, while you begin practicing for the job that you really want.
Rogers: You’re a PR maven, but the book really doesn't talk about GolinHarris, does it?
Cook: I do In the very last chapter. We’re an almost 60-year-old company, and three years ago, based on all the changes happening in the media and marketing world, we threw out a business model that we had been using successfully since the beginning, and we created a whole new model which we call g4. We were the first media agency of any kind to do this, and we didn’t have any blueprint for it. There were no books to read, no instruction manuals to follow, no consultants to help us. We changed the whole way we operate, and we invented all new training programs, all new classifications for our employees. We did assessments for every single person in the firm and reassigned them to different kinds of jobs. We were improvising big time and it's been great for us. We’re still figuring it out as we go, and we’re sort of in the middle of that path. I use that as a personal example of improvising in the business world. I talk a lot about the importance of being an improvisational leader, because in this day and age when everything moves so fast, you don’t always have all the information you need to make a decision and be sure it’s correct. Whether you’re the president of a country or the president of a company, sometimes you have to rely on your instincts, because you don’t have time to do six months of market research and analyze every opinion poll. You have to just do what you think is right based on the information you have at hand, and I think more companies and more people need to know how to do that. Because companies like BlackBerry and Nokia , who are too slow to adapt to the marketplace will lose out.
Rogers: When, when did you start that transformation?
Cook: Three years ago, and we got a lot of publicity in our industry because every agency was talking about change, but no agency was doing anything to change. They all just kept doing business the way they had before. We were the first agency in our industry to do anything like this, and people were fascinated by it. Hundreds of articles were written about us, and other agencies were studying us and copying us, and they still are, but it was because we were doing something different. Instead of just talking about it, we revamped the whole way we work, and it’s still a work in progress. On a scale of 1 to 10, we’re probably at about a 6 in our transformation after three years. We keep changing course and doing things differently.
Rogers: The communications and marketing side of the house is undergoing tremendous transformation. You've spent a lot of your time with CEOs and to a lesser extent, CMOs and CCOs. From my perspective, a CEO’s job, is a pretty lonely place.
Cook: Yes, it can be lonely at the top. I have a chapter in my book about that. It’s called “Ask the Captain.” I provide some anecdotes about when I send out thoughtful e-mails to our entire staff that I’ve pondered over for weeks about a new initiative or recent results and I don’t get a single response. People are afraid to respond. CEOs are the people that need the feedback the most and they get the least. They’re just operating in a vacuum half the time.
Rogers: what’s your advice for CEOs on how to be more improvisational?
Cook: My book is geared to a younger audience. But when I speak, invariably, it is the older people in the audience that come up and say to me how relevant my message is to them, because I think older people don’t improvise at all. As you get older, you tend to stay in your comfort zone. People go to the same restaurants, order the same meal. On vacation, they go to the same destination, stay in the same hotel and ask for the same room. As a result, their creativity calcifies because they don’t welcome new experiences and try new things. If you’re going to be creative in this world where ideas are the main currency, you’ve got to continue to expose yourself to new things and new kinds of people and not live in an ivory tower where you’re just constantly surrounded by familiarity. I think it’s even more important as you get older and as you advance in your career to improvise a little. Otherwise, you’re stuck in a mindset that might be completely outdated. I use examples in the book. I used to work with Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines LUV +0%, who was a guy that would try anything, and he was the most fantastic, fun person to work with but was wildly successful too. We worked for Amazon for a long time. Jeff Bezos is a guy who was not afraid to fail at all. He’d try anything, and he still does. Those are the kind of guys that are improvising. They don’t know exactly whether their ideas are going to work or not, but they try them anyway and they learn from their mistakes. Those are the kind of leaders that have the flexibility and the imagination to do something different.
Rogers: That’s curious you mentioned Bezos because I think the conventional image of him is that he is more of a numbers guy, brilliant, but perhaps not a people person. That’s not who you typically think of as someone who improvises.
Cook: Yes, but when you look at the things he does and the things that he tries--he buys a newspaper, he launches rockets into outer space, he started the biggest cloud storage company in the world. I think that’s a case of somebody that really does improvise in his own way. Now, he’s very smart about it. I’m sure they don’t jump into anything foolishly, but, at the same time, he’s a risk-taker.
Rogers: You have the personality to improvise. It’s part of who you are, but that’s not going to be everyone. How do you get people to think differently?
Cook: When I’m talking to students I tell them that they’re not going to be able to what I did. I got a job on a ship, worked passage to Asia and spent a year there, and I experienced a lot that people can’t do anymore, and I did it in a time when I didn't have student loans to pay back. But I say, “Even if you can’t travel the world, with the Internet and 500 television channels, you can experience a lot of interesting things. You can learn languages online, you can watch foreign films. Every city in the world has a Vietnamese restaurant and an Indian restaurant. You can travel the world without leaving your living room.” I use the example of going to a magazine rack and instead of picking People magazine or Cosmo or Sports Illustrated to try to pick up a magazine about motorcycles or tattoos or fishing. There are whole worlds of people that are different than we are that you can experience and learn from. These don't have to be mind-changing events. There are lots of little ways that you can experiment with your life and enrich it and that can have a huge impact on your career and your work.
Rogers: Some of that seems to me to work on your capacity for empathy, as well.
Cook: I spoke at DePaul University last night and afterwards one of the kids asked me--“What is your greatest trait as a CEO?” I said, “Empathy.” I’ve been around so many different kinds of people, I have a feel for their strengths and weaknesses. I understand them better because I’ve been associated with bums and derelicts and people from other countries. I have a broader appreciation of human beings, because I’m not just around people like me all the time.
Rogers: That’s probably good organizational advice, as well, because companies tend to look like the people with which the top people surround themselves.
Cook: That’s in my book, too. No matter how much you experiment with your life, when you go to look for a job, you should probably look just like everybody else in that company because people hire like they date. They hire people that have the same interests and wear the same clothes as they do, so you have to have that worldview and that new, interesting perspective, but you have to package it in something that doesn’t scare the crap out of people.
Rogers: Let’s talk about GolinHarris and how it started.
Cook: It’s interesting because I think that was also a little bit of improvisation on Al Golin’s part. Al Golin sits next to me, he’s sitting next to me right now, and he’s in his mid eighties. We’re most famous for our work for McDonald’s. 58 years ago, when this was just a tiny company, Al Golin had the balls to call a guy named Ray Kroc who had a handful of McDonald’s restaurants and ask him if he needed a PR firm. We were founded on a cold call and we still work for McDonald’s and he still works on the account, which is unheard of, to have one guy working on an account for 58 years. He’s the only person in the world who’s ever done that. We were built upon the idea of somebody trying something new. We’re a Midwestern firm, so we’re not that edgy but we’re willing to take risks and that’s why it was so surprising when we change our business model. Most people didn't think a company from Chicago was going to be the first one to try something totally different, and it surprised people. We have a long legacy of having a great culture. Now we’re trying to be as innovative as we can, too. It’s an interesting combination sustaining Midwestern values while also trying to be cutting-edge in terms of the way you work.
Rogers: What’s your vision for the future of the communications strategy business?
Cook: For us, it is the change from being generalists to being specialists. We used to have as many ranks as the U.S. Army in terms of our levels. We blew that up and we created four communities of specialists. One community is focused on insights – they’re called the strategists. One is focused on ideas – they’re called creators. A third is focused on engagement across all media channels, and they're called connectors. The whole process is integrated by people we call catalysts in the middle who make this all work together seamlessly. We believe that our business is going to be driven by insights and ideas in the future much more than it is by execution, and we’re investing a lot in those areas. We’re moving very fast to a specialist-orientation rather than a generalist one with the idea that people, instead of working on a dozen different kinds of projects, specialize in one thing that they’re really good at and very passionate about. We’re becoming more of an integrated marketing firm. We’re developing new products and selling new things that we never had before, and hiring people that we would have never hired before, and changing who we are. We’re the ninth or tenth largest PR firm, but we’re a lot smaller than the big guys but that makes our change more interesting because it’s harder for the bigger firms to change as fundamentally as we have. And the smaller firms don’t have the resources to do it. We’re in a great place to change the way we operate and innovate.
Rogers: Now that you've begun this transformation, do you plan to stick around for a while?
Cook: Yes, until they kick me out. I don’t know that any of my bosses at IPG have read my book. But, once they read this book maybe they’ll decide, “This guy is ridiculous.”
Rogers: I started reading your book and it’s immensely fun and engaging,
Cook: − I appreciate the fact that you’re interested and you’re reading it. I’m working with a small publisher in Evanston and this isn't a money-making project for me but it’s been a very rewarding one. And I've gotten just a lot of great feedback from my presentations and it’s really people of all ages. My hope is that the book will have a positive impact on the people who read it and they’ll get something out of it that they can use in their own lives.
You can find Fred's book on Amazon here.
Bruce H. Rogers is the co-author of the recently published book Profitable Brilliance: How Professional Service Firms Become Thought Leaders