We might like to believe that the way to get ahead in the corporate world lies in hard work and brain power. But in his new book, Career Warfare: 10 Rules for Building a Successful Personal Brand and Fighting to Keep It, David F. D’Alessandro, chairman and CEO of John Hancock Financial Services, a Boston firm that in 2003 managed assets worth $140 billion for its clients, stomps firmly on that idea.


“Organizations are not rational,” says D’Alessandro. Don’t expect your future to be decided on merit, he warns. You’re smart? So what? “People with IQs of 135 or 140 are as common in organization life as bad coffee. They’re everywhere,” he writes.


So what matters? Your personal reputation. What D’Alessandro calls your “personal brand.” You build it by avoiding the myriad ways described in the book of crashing your career – no matter how good your performance appraisals. You build it by, among other things, paying attention to seemingly minor moments that can push you forward.   


“On my first day at John Hancock,” writes D’Alessandro, “my boss said to me: ‘While you were chosen because you were the right fit, my secretary said to me that of all the people who came here, you were the nicest.’” D’Alessandro is left to wonder what might have been his fate had he been rude to the boss’s secretary.


He tells a story from the pre-Hancock early days of his career when he was to make a presentation to the board of directors of a firm that had just taken over the company he worked for. He’d spent weeks preparing this presentation. But just before he began, the chairman, who had a mouthful of mints, asked him: “HRS SHYNN RRR TTD U YRRR VRRRY YNN MNN?”


D’Alessandro, taken aback, said he didn’t understand. The chairman mumbled a repeat and D’Alessandro still didn’t understand. But, then, happily, between mints, the chairman said more clearly: “Has anyone ever told you that you’re a very attractive young man?” D’Alessandro still wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly but he managed to reply: “Thank you very much, but not in this kind of environment.”


The chairman seemed satisfied. D’Alessandro finally got to give his presentation and later discovered that his reputation had been greatly enhanced among top management – not because of his presentation which nobody mentioned – but because he hadn’t been rattled by the loony chairman. That, D’Alessandro contends, is what passes for rationality in the corporate world.


D’Alessandro has written, with the help of co-author Michele Owens, a witty, hard-to-put-down book of advice for those who hope to rise to CEO level themselves someday. He doesn’t claim it to be a scientific study of a random selection of companies. He says he is simply passing along what he learned in his own 30-year climb to the top – 19 of those years at John Hancock. 


He gives advice on dealing with bosses when you are just getting started. You hope for a mentor, but may end up with an idiot. But either way, you can assume the boss will take credit for your ideas and work. “The elders of the tribe eat first,” he says.


Polish Your Brand 

No matter how bad the boss, be loyal, never complain about him or her to anyone, he advises. Make yourself valuable to a boss by offering good advice. Timing is important, he warns. “You have to figure out when it’s appropriate to speak and when something is probably too far gone to be challenged.” But if your advice is good – and if you sometimes show yourself willing to stand out in stark contrast to the crowd – you polish your brand.


What he describes is a high wire dance between deference and independence – making the boss happy but also making sure you get to do things that allow you to stand out from your colleagues.


In one of his first jobs – for a public relations firm – D’Alessandro had an account that introduced him to great chefs across America. Thus, he was able to get his boss supposedly impossible-to-get reservations at a choice spot. “Associate your brand with something glamorous and valuable and you become valuable, too,” he writes.


D’Alessandro describes how he survived several idiot bosses in his career. But he says there are some bosses who are so hopeless, you have no choice but to look for another job.


D’Alessandro doesn’t hesitate to make blanket assertions. He flatly advises against working too long for either a family firm or an entrepreneur. At a family firm, no matter how good you are, he says, you are viewed as a placeholder until a member of the family takes the job. You are not going to succeed if you don’t have the right last name. Entrepreneurs are narcissists, he says. “You can learn a lot from these cowboys but any independence equals betrayal.” They are insanely controlling. The worst are crackpots. “An entrepreneur,” writes D’Alessandro, “is like a spoiled kid who wants the biggest, brightest toy soldier in the window. He gets the soldier, takes it home, and plays with it for a while. Then he breaks its legs and abandons it in a corner.”


Career Warfare is filled with specific warnings of all kinds. “If you are single, never bring a date to a corporate event. If you are seen with many different dates, you are a ‘player’ which can be seen as a negative. And if you are seen with the same person many times and then break up, everybody will know and judge you.”


According to D’Alessandro, the rules for building and keeping your personal brand do not end when you have achieved that coveted corner office. He advises being discreet in every form of communication for those starting out, and also for those at the top. In one of the many anecdotes in the book, he describes how the CEO of Cerner, a health care IT services firm in Kansas, vented about employees not working hard enough in an e-mail to his managers. “What you are doing as managers with this company makes me sick,” he wrote. Naturally, it got posted on the internet and, reports D’Alessandro, the company’s stock price went down 21%. Eek.


Among the mistakes D’Alessandro admits from his own career was the announcement in spring 2003 that his 2002 pay package was $21.7 million. One newspaper headline read: “Hancock chief takes home $21.7 million in a bad year.” Another read: “Bigwig D’Alessandro’s greed knows no bounds.”


D’Alessandro writes that he could have avoided the negative reaction if the company had troubled to explain that the vast majority of the package was made up of long term incentive payments or restricted stock. Hmmm. Maybe so. But probably not.

In any case, for those who care, D’Alessandro states that all the profits from Career Warfare, like his previously best-selling book, Brand Warfare, go to John Hancock which distributes them to charity. Isn’t that nice? You can have all the fun of reading the book and help good causes at the same time.