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Fred Cook, CEO Golin: Most organizations look for skills instead of bravery

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Fred CookSearching the same profiles, with the same skills, coming from the same universities is no more the optimal route for recruiting people in the PR industry. We need to start recruiting differently and that means attracting and retaining a more diverse range of people, coming with different areas of expertise and backgrounds. PR Romania has invited Fred Cook, the CEO of Golin, one of the largest and most successful PR firms with 50 offices around the globe, to give us some insights about recruiting differently in PR. Fred has a legendary profile, since he has worked with business leaders such as Apple’s Steve Jobs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Disney’s Michael Eisner. But his career was not always so famous. Before starting his corporate career at the age of 36, he had worked as leather salesman, chauffeur, substitute teacher, cross-country tour guide, a cabin boy, and a doorman, but each job taught him a life lesson. His new book, Improvise: Unconventional Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO, is full of priceless career tips for the young generation.

Fred, what prompted you to write Improvise? What was the inspiration behind?

I thought my unorthodox career stories might provide some insight and reassurance for people like me who don't know exactly where they are going.

You said once ‘The fact that most PR firms recruit from other agencies is a sad statement’. So what’s holding agencies back from a more innovative and risk-taking decisions in recruiting a more diverse range of people?

In general, people hire like they are dating. They choose people who are like them and share their interests. Which means that people who look, act and think differently have an inherent disadvantage.

This kind of ‘endogamic’ recruitment - searching the same profiles, with the same skills, coming from the same schools - is not a very innovative route. How good is the PR industry in recruiting brains with multi-disciplinary backgrounds? How can we train our ability to recruit ‘different’ people?  

To avoid this syndrome of sameness we have to re-educate the people who are hiring and sometimes mandate that they look for someone outside of their comfort zone. Or we can create programs like our Unternship, which are designed to find unlikely candidates.

Do you think that PR industry attract enough doers with entrepreneurial skills?

I think we should put a much greater emphasis on hiring entrepreneurs because they have the passion and commitment to building a business that most big companies desperately need.  They aren't afraid to take risks and fail, like most corporate people. The problem is many entrepreneurs find big business to be too slow and too predictable. If we want to hire dynamic entrepreneurs, we have to act like we are startups.

You argue in your book that the ability to improvise is a critical survival skill in our industry. Can we train this skill or is it part of someone ‘personality?  

Anyone can learn to improvise. You just have to have a little imagination and a little courage.  And not be afraid to make a fool of yourself.

Which are the most common mistakes PR agencies do in recruiting best talent?

Most organizations look for skills instead of bravery. We need to reverse that order and ask people what they are willing to do instead of what they already know how to do.

Any leader may go through periods of tiredness and caution in his professional life. How can recruitment help us to press the ‘refresh’ button?

Leaders can remain relevant and excited by forcing themselves to try new things instead of relying on the habits they have fallen into over the years. Pick up a different magazine, go to a foreign film, learn a new language, talk to a taxi driver. Anything that will stimulate your mind in new way.  


Interview by Dana Oancea. Copyright PR Romania.


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