Career Lessons from a Pool Hustler Turned CEO

Fred Cook, the CEO of PR juggernaut GolinHarris, has worked with Jeff Bezos, Michael Eisner, and Steve Jobs. You would expect him to have attended the best schools, gotten the best grades, and racked up marketable skills before he could legally vote. But the best thing about Fred is that none of those things are true.

As he describes in his new book Improvise: Unconventional Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO, Fred got to where he is through a diverse set of experiences that includes pool hustling, selling Italian leather on the streets of Florence, and getting arrested while working as a doorman at a five-star hotel. The career lessons he mastered at each stage of his colorful career became his credentials. Here are some of the highlights.

Lesson #1:  Learn to Play Pool

As a pool hustler, Fred spent most of his time huddled around Brunswick pool tables arranged geometrically on ornate floral carpeting speckled with 50,000 cigarette burns. To prove his prowess, he wielded a 19-ounce, inlayed Willie Hoppe pool cue that his parents gave him as a bribe for completing confirmation class. He learned to think of his life experiences as balls on a pool table. If there are only two, your shot options are limited. But when you have fifteen, the combinations are endless. Fred now works in a business of ideas, and he finds that his pool hustling career allows him to generate more than most people. It’s not that he’s smarter or more creative – he simply has more options to play with.

Lesson #2: Hang Out with Bums

At the Arc Lanes bowling alley, Fred was mentored by dropouts and derelicts with names like Red Dog, Baby Pod, and Fat Beckham, who were collectively known as the Arc Bums. The criteria for becoming a Bum included a high school diploma, no visible means of support, and time in jail or reform school. As a young person from the right side of the track, Fred was very different from this crowd – and that was what made the experience worthwhile. “Most of us like to hang out with people just like us, but that’s a problem because we never learn how to deal with other types of people,” he says. “If you’ve already assembled a cast of curious characters, learn from them. If you haven’t, move to Las Vegas.”

Lesson #3:  Escape from America

Fred was bitten by the travel bug early in life. He has flown 6 million miles and seen many places average Americans may never visit, like Burma, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. On those trips, Fred counted cars on country roads, peeled potatoes at summer camp, and tested escape ramps on airplanes. As a result, he feels comfortable in most every culture and any situation. He says that his time outside the U.S. is directly responsible for his success in it. If you want to compete in the global economy and do work that’s location independent, you have to see it for yourself and expose yourself to people with different perspectives and points of view. Sometimes you are going to get discriminated against because you’re an American or a certain ethnicity, but it’s important to be able to function anyway. After all, many people experience this every day of their lives and don’t use it as an excuse.

Lesson #4: Be Cliquey

When Fred was promoted to president of GolinHarris, he moved from the LA office where he was beloved, to the headquarters in Chicago where he was unknown. The day before he arrived, the senior people in the company lined up outside the CEO’s office to lobby against reporting to Fred. His first year was tough. He mostly worked alone on uninspiring projects and remembers asking one fellow senior leader when she could introduce him to her client. Her response was, “Why would I ever do that?” Fred built his relationships in Chicago little by little. He asked about his colleagues’ frustrations, ambitions, and personal lives. Gradually, they realized Fred was there to help them, not just himself, and more than 10 years later, he’s still working with the same team of executives. Fred found his entourage, and they all have each other’s backs. Whether we like it or not, humans are social beings and workplaces are cliquey. If you want to succeed at a new job or in a new position, you have to find your own.

Lesson #5: Get Arrested

As a doorman at a luxury hotel, Fred worked four nights a week in the congenial Southern California weather, checked in thousands of prestigious guests and parked hundreds of expensive cars. One night, however, he had a run in with the LAPD, whose cars were blocking his prime guests parking locations. When Fred hemmed in the police cars and threatened the security of the visiting mayor, he was arrested. Things could have turned very bad very quickly, but Fred was able to diffuse the situation and take away these gems about dealing with unreasonable people. First, don’t argue. No matter how right you are, trying to convince them they’re wrong just makes them angrier. Second, don’t take anything they say personally.

Third, listen. Most of the time, they aren’t looking for a solution. They just need to vent. If you let them, they will eventually calm down. Then you can apologize. “I’m sorry” is the most powerful phrase in the world.

What unconventional experiences are in your career past?  What did you learn that you couldn’t do without today?

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  • TG Chem

    Interesting. “Unconventional”, often times thought to be a “bad” adjective- rings a familiar bell of out of the box thinking. Tradition has it’s place but some say conformity…losing a sense of self is death and indeed it is. Fred Cook’s maverick spirit is the risk and unconventional out the box thinking that catapults a company to the next level.
    I do challenge the notion of embracing discrimination. I love being around a diverse group of people and don’t know that anyone says that discrimination is well received by anyone. That said, I get the point of being tenacious and finding your place. I can remember learning to play pool in college (many guys courted the girls that way) and like, many sports strategy does present several options. Such as finding your “people” the people with whom their spirit for success is as infectious as yours. Likely one the reasons I don’t like discrimination… It holds you back and cast a negative shadow over the good that you are. That said, Fred makes a great point… connect to the feelings and emotions of a business and then present viable solutions that increase their opportunities for success. Thanks for sharing Alexandra!

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