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Advice From the Top About How to Get There

Trustee publishes best seller on organizational leadership

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David D’Alessandro's new book is a practical guide to getting ahead. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

At the age when most executives are still striving to reach the corporate pinnacle, David D’Alessandro had already been there, done that, and retired — well, retired as much as anyone with his energy and interests is capable of retiring. The former chairman and CEO of John Hancock Financial Services gives much of his time to Boston University, where he serves as vice chairman of the Board of Trustees, and he also writes books about how to climb the corporate ladder, fast. Now D’Alessandro’s third book, Executive Warfare: 10 Rules of Engagement for Winning Your War for Success, is climbing the New York Times best-seller list at a pace that matches its author’s ascent to the corner office.

Just three weeks after its release, the book is number 14 on the Times best-seller list of advice books. One reason for that: unlike many books in this genre, Executive Warfare, published by McGraw-Hill and written with Michelle Owens, doesn’t attempt to couch unpleasant realities of corporate leadership in complaisant corporate-speak. D’Alessandro’s language is straightforward, and the stories he chooses to elucidate his lessons run the gamut from tough to touching.

On Thursday, July 24, at a reception hosted by Boston University President Robert Brown, D’Alessandro chatted about his book with University administrators, deans, and other interested readers. BU Today talked to the author, who is also a guest columnist for the Boston Globe and a guest commentator on CNBC, about events and actions that can help, or halt, the long climb to the top of the corporate heap.

BU Today: What should a person do if she begins to suspect that she is a bad match for an organization?
David D’Alessandro:
People who are matched badly to a job often stay too long, and sometimes they try very hard to make it work. Frankly, you have to look for feedback inside and outside the organization to see if it’s fixable. If it’s not, you have to get out. It’s always better to get out on your own terms. Many people stay too long in a job for which they are matched badly. It’s a mistake.

Is there one cardinal rule to getting ahead and staying ahead in the corporate world?
There are a couple. One is: don’t travel too much. What is happening at home in a large corporation is extraordinarily important. If you’re on the road one-third or one-half of the time, you can become a forgotten entity. I don’t care about BlackBerrys or other ways to connect; not being with the other people in the organization is a mistake.

Another mistake that many people make, and this sounds obvious, is as they move up, they forget they still have to do their job. If you’ve been successful, you have to continue to succeed, because that’s the ante to play for higher stakes in the organization. I’ve seen a lot of people who say, “I got to this level, I’ll get to the next level,” and they don’t pay attention to producing numbers, results, or whatever the measures are in the organization.

How much ambition is too much ambition?
Well, it is certainly possible to have too much ambition. Some people, for example, just have a kind of white-hot ambition that they can’t control. Those people have to learn how to control it. At some point, as you get higher in the organization, you will lose the confidence of the senior people at the board level if you are seen as totally ambitious. You will be seen as a one-person band, and that can be very dangerous. If that’s you, you must know when to put your ambition back in a bottle.

Is there one great widely held fallacy about climbing the corporate ladder?
There is a lot of conventional wisdom about how to climb a corporate ladder. One of the great fallacies of organizational life is that you always have to go along with what upper management says. In fact, you don’t get to a leadership position without knowing how to question upper management. It’s important that you question them in private. You don’t ever embarrass them in public.

How important is it to be a benevolent leader?
All senior management people who aspire to higher positions have to have a reputation as benevolent. You can be very good at what you do, you can be tough-minded and deliver results, but people around you are going to have personal circumstances where they have to take a leave, or they need something in their personal life, and people will watch to see how you treat other people. If you don’t care about the needs of people, then other people in senior management will look at you and say, “That person is too cold.” Even if you are a great performer, heartlessness does not win at the end of the day.

Do you have any hiring tips?
Hiring is very hard. One of the terrible things about hiring is that the lawyers have made it impossible to get an honest reference. You usually get a glowing reference from employers because they are passing on their problems to you. You have to have multiple interviews with someone, and even with that, if you can bat .500 you are really good at hiring. I always found it hard to judge the talent by myself, and I found it hard to judge the talent in one or two interviews.

Would you advise an aspiring executive to socialize or party with people from work?
No. If you socialize with people from work, you are going to be put in a difficult situation. Someday you may have to fire that person. Going on vacation with people from work or spending lots of time on weekends with people from work is dangerous because you are crossing lines and entering a place where people know too much about you and you know more than you may want to know about their circumstances. They will at some point believe that they don’t have to tell you everything about a situation because they are your friend. You should try to keep your work life and home life separate.

About drinking: work is not a fraternity. You are not in college. This is about achieving the highest levels in the corporation, and if you are not responsible about drinking, you are likely to be seen as irresponsible in general. My advice about drinking? Have another iced tea.

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.

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