John Hancock Financial Services CEO
David D'Alessandro says you're building a rep - a personal
brand - at work with every little move. Take charge of
construction, and you can build a better career.
David D'Alessandro has spent his whole career thinking about
brands. What makes them durable, or ready to shatter at the first
sign of trouble? Think Coke versus, say, DeLorean.
You could say many corporate execs do the same kind of thinking
these days, when "brand" has come to mean "holy grail" in the
business world. But D'Alessandro, 53, is actually qualified to
spout opinions: As Chairman and CEO of John Hancock Financial
Services, he steered the company onto The New York Times'
list of the top 100 brands of the 20th century. Even before making
his way into the executive suite, D'Alessandro was brand-minded; he
took the advertising-and-marketing path up the corporate
Through all this work in communications - and now as a corporate
chief - D'Alessandro has come to believe that what a consumer
thinks immediately after hearing a company's name determines
whether that company succeeds. In his 2001 bestselling book,
Brand Warfare, D'Alessandro laid out his advice for
companies looking to shape and burnish their brands.
Now D'Alessandro is applying that brand savvy to people. His
contention? Just as company names call forth an image in consumers'
minds, your name triggers a mental image in every person you work
with. And just as with companies, that image goes a long way toward
determining your career success.
D'Alessandro draws on his expertise in shaping company brands and
his personal experience navigating to the CEO's chair in his book,
Career Warfare (McGraw-Hill, 2004), available in paperback
in February. In it, he describes how your personal brand is built
and how seeing yourself as a brand that needs to be developed and
marketed can create opportunities that equally skilled and talented
people might never see.
To describe D'Alessandro's own personal brand, you'd certainly use
words like blunt and bold. In 2003 alone, he threatened to pull
John Hancock's multimillion-dollar sponsorship of the United
States Olympic Committee unless it revealed how it spent its budget
and, just for good measure, was one of the first Boston business
leaders to call for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, former
head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. American Way
spoke with D'Alessandro about everything from the importance of a
personal brand to why corporate scandals aren't about greed.
The corporate world and organizational life in general
don't come across terribly well in your book. Do you have a dim
view of the internal dynamics of most big companies?
I'm very cynical toward organizational life, whether it's in
universities or the government or corporations or big nonprofits.
They are not the most efficient career-makers. They don't exactly
end up with the very best [people] in the very best jobs all the
What does that mean for people who are working in
My point in the book was that if organizations are relatively
inefficient, and you are talented, you need to find ways to be seen
and heard in order to rise. How many people do we know who went to
school, were smarter than we were, who ended up in worse jobs? A
Can you explain what a personal brand is and how building
one is similar to how companies build their brands?
[A] personal brand, just as with corporations, is your reputation:
the reputation of your product, [the] reputation of yourself.
People pay less attention to their personal brands because they
believe other people are going to take care of it for them. And
they don't realize that every day - with every action, every
inaction - they are building a reputation for themselves, aka
brand, that other people will use to help them or hurt them.
Let me give you an example of why it helps [to have a good brand]
that's very similar in both corporate life and for personal
branding. When a person who is perceived as honest and hardworking
and has a bright future makes a mistake, or a company that's been a
very good corporate citizen stumbles because it, say, finds a fly
in the hamburger, in both instances they get a pass because they
have built up credibility. If you make a mistake and you get tipsy
at a party - one of my no-no's - you'll be forgiven if [your
colleagues and superiors] like you and think well of you. Just like
you'll get forgiven if there's a fly in the hamburger. You'll get a
pass because you've built up this insulation, so to speak.
So all these thousands of interactions - from the most
mundane water cooler conversations to presentations in front of the
board - shape each person's brand. Doesn't viewing the workplace in
that way smother spontaneity and risk-taking?
I think one of the ways people can misinterpret the book is by
thinking it's calculating, and that if you're calculating you lose
creativity and lose your ability to be yourself. I don't see it
that way at all. I have taken enormous risks in corporate life all
along the path. You have to have the confidence in who you are, in
what your brand is, to take those risks.
But the risks I take are with business ideas. I don't take risks
with other ventures. The book tries to keep you channeled in
recognizing that you're going to make mistakes and you cannot
calculate every move, everything you do; that's for certain. But
after you've gone through your day, you think about what you've
done. If you've made an enemy you didn't want to make, for
instance, unmake that enemy.
What did you mean when you wrote that there are five or six
big moments that determine the trajectory of your career? What was
one of yours?
Often what happens is, the decision about your next step is made in
a matter of a few minutes. It isn't as if the executives all go off
for a week and think about you. A job opening happens, or a
reorganization happens, and there are a bunch of names in front of
them. It's almost as if they're playing a game like "Strategy" or
"Sorry." They're basically moving pieces across a board. Regardless
of the performance appraisals and everything else, four or five
people are sitting in a room making the call because they're
reorganizing or they're filling slots. I do it all the time in the
job I'm in today.
I can give you a personal example. I was taken to lunch by the
president of the company [I was working for] at that time and my
boss, the chief financial officer. During lunch they said to me,
"What do you want to do? There are a couple of job openings; would
you be interested in any of these?" And I told them what I'd be
interested in. That was it. It wasn't as if they came to lunch
saying, "We're going to put you in a new job." They were taking me
to lunch to tell me I'd been a good boy. I said to them, "Well, the
good boy wants to be rewarded."
It can happen that quickly?
It can happen on a whim. Which is why you always want to be in a
position to not have too many enemies in that particular room.
You'll probably have one no matter what. If it's five people in the
room, you don't want three.
After reading your book, would it be reasonable for someone
to believe that presentation, not substance, is the most important
part of achieving success in the corporate world?
My assumption is that everybody is talented, everyone has
substance, everyone is accomplished, and that's when the game
actually begins. But what people don't tell you is, there are a
hell of a lot of talented people around. There are lots of great
financial people, there are a lot of great marketing people, there
are great writers. What distinguishes one from another is not
always the quality of their work. The quality of their work at some
point is, frankly, hard to discern.
While you say building a solid personal brand requires
treating everyone fairly and decently, there are times you think
embracing confrontation is good. When?
It does make sense, and god, I pick a lot of [fights] because I
actually like the combat.
What I say in the book is, don't be mean to people just because
you're mean or you're unhappy. Pick a fight when you believe that
you are absolutely right and it's worth having the fight.
There are times to pick a fight. You don't say, well, today I'm
going to pick a fight because people are thinking I'm wimpy. You
pick a fight on something substantive, and you stick with your
thought, and if you lose, you lose, but you'll be respected for
having picked the fight. You pick a fight when the stakes are worth
it, when you feel that your idea is getting diminished or if you
really feel it's for the betterment of the organization. Or if you
think your reputation is being sullied.
That doesn't mean that on your way to picking your fight that you
step on every person, including the security guard in the lobby.
I'm very down on picking fights with people who can't fight back. I
don't believe you bully or use your power against people who don't
have the weapons to fight back.
With so many opportunities, day in and day out, to screw up
your personal brand and stall your career, how is it that so many
incompetents, even criminals, have made it into the executive
Well, I don't know how many criminals make it into the executive
suites. There are a few breathtaking ones who appear to have made
Organizations often push up people for not the best reasons. They
push them up because they're complete sycophants and the boss likes
sycophants. Sometimes, for example, there's a job opening that is
equal to the level of your boss but in a different division. People
come to your boss and say, "Who should we put in that job?" And
your boss sings the praises of some complete wimp. Why does he do
that? So he won't have any competition, plus he'll have a person
loyal to him working in a competing division. I never underestimate
how far sycophants can get in corporate life, organizational life.
It never ceases to amaze me.
People who don't make waves often do pretty well. They're
uncreative, don't-rock-the-boat people who appeal to that
vanillalike executive management crowd. How does that happen? It
happens because of what the bosses want, for any number of
In terms of criminals, I have a different theory on this from that
of a lot of people. A lot of people think this is about greed. It
has never been about greed. I don't think it's about greed in any
of these cases, from Martha Stewart to [former Tyco CEO Dennis]
Kozlowski to you name the alleged criminal. I believe it's about
arrogance. These people are all rich anyway. If they get another
$10 million or $20 million, it does not matter. But they do believe
the rules do not apply to them. They believe they are special. They
are allowed to sell stock when they want because, after all, it's
them. They're allowed to change the accounting because they rule
their own empire. They believe without any question that they're
They have so many people telling them that they
They're really mutants. I kind of resent the fact that there is so
much displeasure about corporate executives.
What's the biggest mistake you made in your
It was going into corporate life at all [laughs]. I was working for
a company in Connecticut, the Control Data Corporation, and I left.
There was an opportunity in New York, and I left for that job, and
I did not understand the dynamics of the new company. I was
absolutely miserable. And to make matters worse, after seven
months, I was recruited by somebody and leapt into another job
where I was absolutely miserable. I failed to do enough homework on