So you’re looking for new talent. You flip open your file and find a resume from a guy who got kicked off his high school tennis team. He spent a few years trying to get his own record company off the ground. He started a business providing rides home for people who’d had a little too much to drink. He substitute-taught home economics to junior high school students. He worked as a doorman. He traveled in Italy and the Himalayas. And now, well, he thinks he might like to give public relations a try.
Would you hire this person? Or does his resume just seem too strange and rambling to warrant serious interest?
If you think the latter, you’re making a mistake. This resume belongs to none other than GolinHarris’ CEO Fred Cook. His unusual career—from aspiring record executive to doorman all the way up to successful PR executive—proves that there is no one clear path to take in life, and that a non-traditional background can make for stunning success in the corporate world.
As of last week, there’s one more line to add to Cook’s resume: Author. In his new book Improvise: Unconventional Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO, Cook inspires young people with what is possible, encouraging them to take risks, try new things, and not be afraid to fail.
“I wrote the book,” Cook explains, “because I spend a lot of time at work and on college campuses with young people, and I have found that they are stressed out and feeling pressure about their careers. I thought that some of my experiences might be helpful to them in figuring out their own lives. I dedicate the book to people who don’t know where they’re going but have the courage to figure it out along the way. A successful career should be measured by the variety of experiences, not the number of salary increases.”
Cook got my attention last year during a trip I took to DePaul University as part of our “Take Flight with PR” initiative. Like his book, the presentation he gave at our event expounded on the virtues of taking the road less traveled. It was wise and insightful, and it resonated. I, too, took my time figuring out what to do with my life. After college I sold advertising, appraised real estate, wrote for a chain of weekly newspapers and sold tickets at the Sundance Film Festival. Looking back on it, all these jobs had PR elements to them, and all of them prepared me well for the career I would enjoy in PR. But at the time this was hardly clear—both to me and to prospective employers.
Cook’s eminently readable chapters tell colorful stories from his life in the course of presenting a series of valuable career tips. Students today worried about finding a job should expose themselves to diverse corners of the world and of culture. They should listen more and ask senior leaders for help. They should make the most of the jobs they do have, even if they seem thankless. They should learn to improvise, mobilizing tools or materials at hand to achieve their goals. Most of all, they should boldly make their own rules. A CEO who hasn’t gone to an “elite” school? Well…why not?
Improvise also reminds us already in the industry to take risks and open our minds in our hiring. As Cook relates, firms talk about branching out in the talent they acquire, but all too often they wind up welcoming in people who are like them. “As a profession,” he says, “we have to be more imaginative and take risks on different kinds of people. The fact that most PR firms recruit from other firms is a sad statement. We should empower our hiring managers to do more creative recruiting.”
Cook plans to go far beyond that. As I was intrigued to learn, GolinHarris is using proceeds from the book to fund an exciting new “externship” program. Imagine being hired at a firm and being told you have six months before you start to get real life experience through travel, volunteering, or some other cool activity. Oh, and imagine that the firm will pay you to do this.
This is precisely the kind of fresh thinking our industry needs. Just as Cook reinvented himself multiple times in his career, and just as GolinHarris reinvented itself through its G4 model, we all need to radically redesign how we regenerate our workforces. Let’s find new ways to welcome in people with unusual backgrounds and experiences, bold leaders who aren’t afraid to put it all on the line. Doing nothing seems safe, but in fact it’s anything but that — a kind of slow suicide.
“Experiment a little. Try new things. Meet different kinds of people. Read different kinds of books. That’s how you figure out what resonates.” But Cook’s advice applies to our talent searches as well. How do we know what kind of person will “resonate” with our clients? Only by taking seriously all the resumes on our desks. Even the ones that seem a little crazy or unusual.