Fred Cook didn’t grow up knowing he wanted to be a CEO, but he had the courage to figure it out along the way.
It’s this kind of life education, or learning as you go, through travel, different career ventures and failures, and personal relationships that helped him advance his position at Golin, one of the world’s largest Public Relations firms. More than 25 years ago, the Evansville native started as an account supervisor in the Los Angeles office of Golin before moving to Chicago 11 years ago to become the company’s third CEO.
But Cook, a 1967 graduate of Harrison High School and Indiana University in Bloomington, didn’t join the corporate world until age 36. Prior to that, he worked at several odd jobs including chauffeuring drunks home from bars, substitute teaching in Los Angeles’ worst schools, serving as a cabin boy on a Norwegian tanker, and many more hilarious life pursuits as he went.
Cook shares his unusual path in his book, “Improvise: Unconventional Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO,” which was released in April (see Evansville Living September/October Shelf Life). In keeping with his unorthodox style of doing things, Cook plans to use all the proceeds from his novel and speaking engagements to fund what he calls an “un-ternship.” Golin will hire a staffer and provide the funds for him or her to experience the world for six months before returning to work at the company. It’s a method that has never been done before, says Cook, but he’s willing to invest in someone’s life education.
Evansville Business caught up with Cook to talk about his Evansville influences, new book, and how he became an unlikely CEO.
You pull so many of your experiences that you write about in your book from growing up in Southern Indiana and Evansville. How did that time influence you later in life?
Evansville culture was a huge influence for me and being an Arc Lanes rat and hanging out with dropouts and delinquents, it was my first exposure to people totally different than me, who had different socioeconomic conditions. Some had been in prison and in reform school; it was just such a cast of characters and I learned so much from them about so many different things. Many of them remain my lifelong friends.
That first exposure to people who had a totally different view on life opened my mind. My whole life since then I have been attracted to people different than me and perhaps that’s why I’ve been good at working with people and that all goes back to Evansville.
“Improvise: Unconventional Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO” has been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post, as well as many other national publications. What kind of feedback have you been receiving?
I just spoke (recently) at the University of Florida. Afterward, a lot of students came up to talk to me, and their reaction was of relief and reassurance and that’s very rewarding for me. I think they are all very stressed out about their careers and about the demands their parents are placing on them. They are relieved to hear there is more than one path to success and when they see my story, combined with a little advice that I give, it helps send the point home rather than just saying what you should do. It is about what happens to me and it makes it more real and more tangible for them.
In your book, you say you never took a business course and barely graduated from college, what would advice would you give to millennials furthering their education?
Looking back, I wish I had taken a business course or two. It probably would have helped me a lot. I do think school experience is very important, but I think life experience is equally important. A lot of young people coming into the business world today have great educations, but they don’t have much life experience and that’s what they need to work on.
Schools don’t teach enough about personal relationships and working with people and the skill level on the job, and I’ve found that’s the most important thing — how you deal with other people. I have a chapter in my book called “Enlist an Entourage.” It’s about how you have to surround yourself with people you trust, and people who will do everything they can to make you look good, everyone needs to nurture that kind of team. I don’t care how good you are at what you do; you can’t be successful by yourself. It is impossible.
How did failure and your many different odd jobs help you reach your position as CEO at Golin today?
It’s depressing when you fail. No one wants to. But every time you do it, you get a little stronger and you gain a little more courage because you find out you didn’t die.
Failure opens doors for you, because when something fails, you are forced to try something different. I’ve done that a dozen times and each case, I’ve learned a lot from the experience whether I was successful at it or not.
Interviewer Jim Church has been friends with Fred Cook for more than 50 years; they both attended grade school at Harper Elementary School and high school at Harrison High School.
For more information about Fred Cook’s work at Golin, visit golin.com.