How to Wage Executive Warfare

At the top management level, writes David D'Alessandro, leaders need real insight into how their employees and peers think

David D'Alessandro wasn't born with much business acumen. The Utica (N.Y.) native went to Syracuse University with the idea of becoming a journalist.

"Unfortunately," D'Alessandro says, "I just wasn't a good enough writer."

So he left journalism and turned to corporate management, rising to the CEO spot at John Hancock Financial Services, in 2000. Now he has written his third book, Executive Warfare, a guide to climbing to the top of the corporate ladder. Executive Warfare follows D'Alessandro's Brand Warfare and Career Warfare, his guides for beating other brands and beginning that corporate ladder climb, respectively.

The book, set to hit stores on July 8, is a product of conversations D'Alessandro had with "a lot of smart, accomplished people." He says these discussions augmented several lessons he himself has learned over the course of his career. The most important one, he says, is that people are motivated by their own interests. Contributions you make to the company are rewarded by some managers, punished by others, and even flat-out ignored by a few, simply because your actions might or might not be in the manager's best interests. Not everyone learns this lesson.

"I was stunned at how many people I know become deer in the headlights when they make it to upper management," D'Alessandro says. In middle management, it's enough to work hard and be smart. But at the top, it's suddenly not. "Everyone up there is smart and hardworking," he points out.

Instinctive Understanding of Human Nature

What separates the wheat from the chaff, then, is an instinctive understanding of human nature, which gives you insight into how your employees and peers think. In a business age dominated by analysts and financial gurus, D'Alessandro says many companies are discarding the human element: "So many management people forget they are human, and that they are dealing with humans."

It's human nature that prompts employees to stay at a company even after they've been passed over for a promotion. They cling to their current position, hoping to be noticed the next time around. "They should just move on," D'Alessandro says. That's precisely what he did after four years as head honcho at Hancock. After Canadian insurer Manulife Financial acquired Hancock early in 2004, D'Alessandro saw his chance to escape. Rather than staying on as president of Manulife and CEO of Hancock, the then-53-year-old left. "I'd been doing that for 20 years, I wanted to pursue other things," he says.

When you do move on, D'Alessandro recommends some serious meditation. If the company is bringing you aboard to effect a fundamental change in its corporate culture or public image, make sure the company—not just one board member—wants this change. And if the founder is still in charge, forget it. D'Alessandro says most company founders are resistant to change and generally unwilling to concede power. However, if you convince the board only you can up the company's value, they'll force the founder out of the picture.

Most important, though, is knowing you can't always get what you want. D'Alessandro saw he had no future as a reporter, despite his desire. He says he had no idea where his future was, but eliminating one dead end helped open him up to other possibilities. "Recognize your limits," he says, "even though you don't know what your potential is."

For a slide show on lessons for CEOs and CEO wannabes, click here.