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Book

Former John Hancock CEO shares plans for climbing to the top

By Chuck Leddy
September 22, 2008
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Executive Warfare: 10 Rules of Engagement
for Winning Your War for Success

By David F. D'Alessandro, with Michele Owens
McGraw Hill, 265 pp., $24.95

Former John Hancock CEO David D'Alessandro makes it clear in this anecdoterich guide to corporate leadership that climbing to the top of the organizational ladder to stay isn't simply a matter of talent and perseverance. "You'll need to learn how to acquire the global perspective your peers lack," writes D'Alessandro, "when and how to deliver bad news, when to take a shot at your rivals, and when to be gracious, and, most importantly, how to handle the many new influences on your trajectory . . . including bosses, directors, underlings, peers, and clients."

Some of D'Alessandro's advice seems obvious, such as choosing a job that best leverages your passion and natural abilities. But to get ahead, he says, you'll need to see beyond your function and understand the entire organization in order "to show dimension and prove that you belong in a broader role." And when it comes to fully trusting your boss and subordinates, D'Alessandro recommends caution. Those seeking nurturing from their bosses may find disappointment. "The first rule of your relationship with your boss is to understand that it's a business transaction. . . . Love them or hate them, what you really want is to get beyond them."

As for interacting with colleagues and subordinates, D'Alessandro sees a real risk in getting too cozy or social with them. "I highly recommend that you keep your personal life private," he writes. "Take the risk of people not knowing you. Because anything you do reveal, trust me, will eventually come back to haunt you."

D'Alessandro tells an insightful anecdote about participating in a group trust-building exercise when he worked at Citicorp. An instructor asked one of D'Alessandro's colleagues to blindfold him and then catch him as he fell backward. D'Alessandro describes what happened next: "When my head hit the floor three things made me feel better. One, I heard a lot of other heads hit the floor, too. Two, we were on a plush carpet, so it wasn't too painful. And three, the guy laughing behind me, the guy who’d let me fall - well, it was his turn to wear the blindfold next."

Brutal competition is part of the corporate landscape, D'Alessandro notes. Rivals will plant rumors about you, he says, especially about your personal weaknesses. D'Alessandro's rivals depicted him as bad tempered, but he found ways to undermine them while working on his temper. And when you do decide to attack a rival, don't "shoot to wound . . . just take him out," says D'Alessandro in one of the book's more Machiavellian moments.

Regarding hiring, D'Alessandro loathes subordinates who conceal bad news from the boss. "If you hire only yes-men, the people above you will notice and think less of you." Bosses need to know bad news immediately, D'Alessandro writes. "Encourage your employees to bring bad news to you individually . . . even when they don't have a solution."

Much of D'Alessandro’s advice is simply common sense, but he shows that it's the very lack of that quality that has ruined countless careers. Don't get drunk at office events. Don't sleep around with colleagues. Don't make stupid or insensitive remarks at the wrong time or to the wrong person. Do the right things ethically, even if you might not get caught. D'Alessandro offers numerous anecdotes where top managers have ignored these simple rules and committed career suicide. Climbing to the top is filled with drama, and his book is not just a manual for getting ahead but also a front-row seat on the never-ending struggle up the summit.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

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