Fred Cook on Rebranding Golin and Gaining Trust

October 2, 2018

Fred Cook Highlights

Current job titles: Chairman, Golin; Director of the Center for Public Relations at the University of Southern California

Previous executive roles: CEO, Golin; Managing Director, GolinHarris Los Angeles
 

Before becoming CEO of Golin, you led their Los Angeles office. As you stepped up, what did you get right, and what did you get wrong?

Running Golin’s L.A. office was way more fun than running the whole company. I had a lot of autonomy then and a very successful operation. Because I had been there a long time, people totally believed in me. They thought everything I did was brilliant!

But when I moved to Chicago, no one knew me and many wondered what the hell I was doing there. Worse, the company was in bad shape financially. The first couple of years were very stressful for me and I often wondered if moving to the headquarters had been a mistake.

Gradually, I was able to gain people’s trust by proving that I cared about them and their personal success. Their support was critical, because there was no way I could have executed a turnaround without them. I’m very proud that 17 years later I’m still working with that same group of people.


In 2011, the company transformed its business model by classifying employees into four groups, your “g4” of strategists, creators, connectors and catalysts. In 2014, the firm rebranded from GolinHarris to Golin. How did these changes test your leadership skills?

I’ve always believed in taking risks and creating change in my life and work. Blowing up a business model that had been successful for more than 50 years was a little intimidating, but I learned a lot in the process.

When our senior team was planning g4, I realized that the speed of change is critical. If you go too fast, you leave the skeptics behind. If you go too slowly, the go-getters get frustrated. You have to find a pace somewhere in the middle.

The experience also taught me the importance of momentum. Change is a constant process and you have to keep pushing, while also celebrating your successes along the way. Otherwise, people naturally fall back into old familiar patterns.

Finally, when undergoing a major change you have to demonstrate commitment. When I thought our people were losing faith in our new model, I tattooed the g4 logo on my bicep to prove it wasn’t going away. Today, we don’t talk about g4 much, because it’s become the natural way we work.


Which leaders have inspired you?

I’ve had the privilege to work with some very dynamic CEOs, including Steve Easterbrook at McDonald’s, Reggie Fils-Amie at Nintendo, Jeff Bezos at Amazon and Steve Jobs at Pixar. It’s also been a tremendous joy for me to work with unorthodox leaders such as Herb Kelleher and Sheldon Adelson, who both broke all the rules in the airline and gaming industries. I just met with Sheldon in Las Vegas a few weeks ago and it was one of the most memorable meetings of my career.
 
But my all-time favorite leader is still my mentor and friend Al Golin, who always inspired and entertained me. He died last year and I miss him every day.


What have been your three biggest leadership faux pas?

I’ve made so many mistakes that it’s hard to pick only three. When I first became CEO, Golin was heavily invested in trust research, but I was too busy trying to fix the company to focus on it.

A few years ago, I acquired a fashion and lifestyle boutique in Germany because I was enamored with its dynamic founder. But it wasn’t a good fit and we ended up giving it back to her after two years.

And a long time ago, I got on the wrong plane at LAX and ended up in Miami instead of New York. People still make fun of me for that.

Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs is principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching. Visit his website (www.jacobscomm.com) and contact him by email (ken@jacobscomm.com) or Twitter (@KensViews).

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