There’s more to climbing the corporate ladder than showing up at the office on time and singing a hearty “happy birthday” to your boss every year. (Though that can’t hurt.)

Big shot Chicago CEO Fred Cook--head of the marketing firm Golin Harris, whose top clients have included McDonald’s, Walmart and BP--has come a long way from his early days of off-the-wall odd jobs.

His new book, Improvise: Unconventional Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO, is full of priceless career tips (like becoming a better listener). Here he answers our questions about how to succeed in business...with a little bit of trying.

PureWow: What’s your secret weapon for taking the high road to the top?

Fred Cook: Like a movie star or a politician, you need an entourage to be successful. People who will spend every waking moment trying to make you look good. If you want to be successful, start recruiting your entourage now.

PW: One piece of advice for staying on your game in the workplace?

FC: Listening is a lost art. People need to practice it every day. Asking questions is the best way to learn. Don't be afraid to sound stupid, and get to know senior management. They can make the biggest impact on your career.

PW: Before you were the big boss, how did you get promoted?

FC: I never asked to be promoted. Instead, I asked for opportunities--on new accounts, with new projects and in different offices. Once my bosses realized that I was ambitious, they promoted me.

PW: If an employee asks for a promotion, what makes you sit up and listen?

FC: If an employee is adding value in a tangible, visible way, they shouldn't have to ask for a promotion.

PW: Who are your career idols and what did they do right?

FC: I have always admired Billie Jean King, who said, “Pressure is a privilege.” And Martha Stewart, who said, “Failure to change is failure.” 

PW: When is it appropriate to discuss a coworker with your boss?

FC: I think people spend too much time complaining about their coworkers. Unless there is a serious case of harassment or discrimination, work out your differences with each other. Open communication makes for a much better corporate culture.

PW: What is a workplace no-no we should avoid?

FC: If you spend a lot of time bad-mouthing others, people will assume you do the same to them and they will never trust you.

PW: If you’re applying for a job but your résumé isn't as strong as the competition’s, how do you make your case?

FC: If you don't have the right credentials, improvise. Like Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, take what you have and make it special. Describe your accomplishments instead of listing your responsibilities. Customize every résumé to every opportunity to demonstrate why you're a perfect fit for that specific job. Then use your cover letter to paint a picture of who you are and why you are passionate about the position.

PW: What makes a résumé catch your eye? What would make you toss a résumé?

FC: People should spend more time explaining their personal information. Normally that’s a boring list of professional activities and honors. Use that space to show why you’re special. Talk about unusual hobbies, exotic travels and unique interests. That’s what makes you stand out.

PW: Anything you would have done differently along the way?

FC: I was kicked off the tennis team, fired as a doorman, flunked as a teacher, arrested as a chauffeur, ignored in the music business and got totally lost as a tour guide. So there are a lot of things I would do differently if I had the chance to do them all over again. But my failures taught me a lot and gave me the courage to try new things.

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