1. Expose Yourself
People entering the business world today are a commodity. They've gone to the same schools, taken the same courses, read the same books, and watched the same movies. Meanwhile, companies like mine are desperately seeking fresh minds to help them navigate massive cultural and technological changes. Where are they going to find them?
Growing up in a small town in Indiana, I led the middle-class life of Beaver Cleaver, until I was kicked off the high school tennis team. Then my real education began with a new curriculum of hustling, drinking, smoking, cruising, fighting, and sex. (I mostly examined the latter.)
Think of your life as a big magazine rack. When you're standing in front of it deciding what to choose, resist the normal impulse to reach for People or Cosmopolitan. Instead, grab a copy of Game Informer, Inked, Guns and Ammo, or Bass Fisherman. Apply the same approach to movies, books, and people. You need to expose yourself. Whether you're looking for your first job or your fifth, you'll benefit from exploring unusual ideas and engaging unconventional individuals. If you experiment with your life, you'll learn a lot about yourself and the rest of the human race.
2. Hit the Road
Americans are a sedentary lot. Only one out of three have a passport. When they travel, their favorite destination is Las Vegas, where they can photograph the Eiffel Tower, float in a gondola, and visit the pyramids. Less than 5 percent of US citizens travel overseas each year. As a result, they know less about the rest of the world than the rest of the world. This is a problem when every cell phone is made in China and every service call is answered in India.
Selling expensive leather wallets to unsuspecting tourists in Florence, Italy, I learned why Americans are afraid to travel. Foreign businessmen like my boss Enzo were just waiting to rip them off. In two-thirds of the world, bribery is an accepted business practice and bargaining is an art. You need to learn the regional ropes by studying or working abroad, because every employer is banking on international sales to fuel their future. If you want to compete in the global economy, especially in a melting pot like Miami, you've got to hit the road.
3. Ask the Captain
Knocking on a captain's door opened a new world for me. While my contemporaries were graduating from college, I talked my way into a job as a cabin boy on a Norwegian tanker bound for Asian destinations I'd never imagined. In your career you will encounter "ships" that can transport you to unexpected places. You just have to figure out how to ask the captain.
Senior executives are intimidating to those just starting out. But they're the ones who can have a real impact on your career. Stalk them in the hallways. Corner them at events. Drill them with smart questions. Ask for their help. If you want to be a captain tomorrow, you should start by asking one a question today.
4. Listen to a Guru
Listening is a critical skill for any CEO, or anyone who wants to be a CEO, but today it's a lost art form. High in the Himalayas, a guru taught me the secret to listening. As we walked together down a crowded street, the "Hippie Guru of Darjeeling" promoted his psychic credentials and his mastery of the spiritual world, either trying to impress me or to scam a few rupees. When I jokingly accused him of lying, this little old man responded with a hard left hook to my jaw, teaching me a valuable lesson. Sometimes you should just SHUT UP and listen!
5. Enlist an Entourage
The truth is, behind every famous person there is a team of highly paid professionals dedicated to keeping them in the spotlight. If you want to be a billionaire, a senator, or a rock star, you need to enlist an entourage that is going to devote every waking hour to making you look good. After a few fun but frustrating years running a small record company in Bloomington, Indiana, I realized it was futile to do management, publicity, promotion, distribution, and representation all by myself. My failure taught me that if I ever wanted to be successful, I was going to need a lot of help.
No matter how talented you are, you're always going to be competing with people who have more experience and better connections. If you really want to get to the top, you need to start recruiting your entourage now.
6. Work for Tips
This year, 85 percent of the 3.2 million U.S. students who graduate from college will move back home, and 22 percent won't be able to get a job. Of those who are able to find employment, more than 50 percent will work as servers and baristas. If you're one of them, you're lucky.
Customer service is the heart of business. Every CEO needs to know how to keep his customers happy. Nowhere is this truer than in the hospitality industry, where gratifying guests has become a science.
Like most people pursuing a career in the entertainment industry, I had to find a way to support myself. My first paying job in the City of Angels was working as a doorman at a five-star hotel, where I learned that the secret to customer service is the little things, like remembering people's names.
If you've worked for tips, you have an advantage over the average executive. You understand what people want. You recognize the little things that make them happy. And you know how to solve their problems. You just have to figure out how to make those tips work for you.
7. Drive a Drunk
Like Mark Zuckerberg, we all dream up ideas for new products and services. We discuss them over beers. We sketch them out in notebooks. We give them clever names. We even reserve their URLs. But we rarely make them happen. Because we're afraid to fail.
My version of Facebook was called "Sober Chauffeur, a Discrete Service for the Drinking Class." The concept was brilliant. After a few drinks, patrons called our number and we sent a uniformed chauffeur to drive them home in the comfort of their own car. Unfortunately, drunks are unreliable customers.
Don't be afraid to translate your ideas for entrepreneurship into reality. Today, most people get their first taste of business through internships, which are mandatory for goal-oriented college students. Being an entry-level employee at someone's company will teach you a lot about business, but imagine how much you might learn from being president of your own.
8. Guide a Tour
Many job hunters worry they lack the necessary credentials. Those hoping to change careers are concerned their experience isn't relevant. These are legitimate fears, but they can be overcome. When you reach the top, everything you say and do will be scrutinized by the press and the public. Luckily, on the way up nobody pays much attention, which allows those of us who lack the standard business prerequisites to improvise.
Lack of experience didn't inhibit my pursuit of a career in the travel industry. I created a resume that carefully reshaped my exploits as a cabin boy, doorman, and chauffeur to land a job as a tour guide. Then, I packed my suitcase with a dozen guidebooks about stops on our trip that I'd never visited. I discovered that with a little preparation and a lot of creativity, I could confidently lead people through unfamiliar territory.
Most people think improvising means making things up. I prefer a different definition--creating something special from whatever ordinary ingredients happen to be available. Whether you're grasping for your first job or hanging on to your last, improvisation is a mandatory business skill.
50 percent of college graduates are working at jobs that don't require a college degree. 75 percent of Americans say they would change jobs tomorrow if they could. These are discouraging statistics, especially if you're one of these people. But don't give up just because your current employment isn't ideal. I used my nightmare job to practice for my dream one.
As one of the few young male substitute teachers in the LA Unified School district, I volunteered for assignments in inner-city high schools, where I received combat pay to instruct gang members in South Central on the finer points of auto mechanics and home economics. I really wanted to work in public relations, but since I didn't have enough experience to start a career, I practiced PR at school.
When Los Angeles hosted the Olympics, the entire community was shocked when the Soviet Union announced its plan to boycott the event on the phony premise that the city was too dangerous. Although I wasn't interested in the politics behind this decision, I used the opportunity to launch a student letter-writing campaign that generated massive positive publicity for one of the poorest schools in town. I taught myself PR and I leveraged that experience to start a new career.
10. Make the Rules
Most executives rise to the top by adapting to their company's culture, by meeting quarterly financial goals, and by not getting fired. They follow a well-worn path. How does someone from outside the corporate world get accepted into this exclusive pledge class and ultimately advance to the executive suite? It took me 15 years to figure that out.
At age 36, when I finally landed my first PR agency job, I volunteered for every boring assignment. Once I made myself indispensable, instead of asking for promotions, I asked for opportunities - on other accounts, in other business units, in other offices, and, as a last resort, in other companies. Every offer helped me advance to the next level until I eventually became CEO.
The business world is full of rules. Some succeed by following them, others by breaking them. You have to find the right balance. If you break all the rules, you may frighten people. But if make your own rules, they may not even notice.
Fred Cook is the CEO of GolinHarris, one of the world's largest and most successful public relations firms with 45 offices around the globe. He moved to Miami in 1968 - the start of the hippie era - and attended the University of Miami his freshman year. He then went on to graduate from Indiana University. Cook's lecture featuring advice from his new book,"Improvise: Advice from an Unlikely CEO," is Monday, April 21, 2014 at 7 p.m. at the UM School of Communication.
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