Is career warfare the way to get ahead?

Cover of "Career Warfare: 10 Rules for Bu...

In a previous post, I supported and wrote about Adam Grant’s theory that givers with ambition will be more successful than others.  Then I saw Career Warfare: 10 Rules for Building a Successful Personal Brand and Fighting to Keep It by David F. D’Alessandro and wondered if getting ahead requires warfare instead of generosity.  The good news is that David D’Alessandro’s book really does not call for warfare — he does not describe ways to torpedo your rivals or sabotage your enemies.  Instead, he offers candid advice on how to develop your personal brand in a business environment.  David starts with the observation that people watch, evaluate and talk all the time:

Everyone in organizational life is currently being watched and evaluated by bosses, clients, vendors, peers, subordinates, and these people’s significant others. Every day, every bit of human interaction you engage in, some member of this crowd forms an opinion about you.

The professional world is a very small place, and everybody talks. Your bosses talk, your clients talk, your vendors talk, your peers talk, and subordinates talk. And the significant others really talk. They talk about you whether you’re a lone salesperson with your own territory or the CEO at the top of the heap. Eventually those thousands of opinions that created by thousands of transactions will generate a kind of consensus about who you are.

That consensus goes by many names: it is your reputation, public image, legend, or character. This is probably my bias is a marketer with spent in decades helping corporations build their reputations, but I like to think of it as a “personal brand.” 

David advises that the “single most important thing you can do for your career is to lay the groundwork for an attractive personal reputation.”  He’s right.  He offers 10 “rules” to build your brand:

1.  See the world from others’ perspective.  Stephen M.R. Covey said “[w]e judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.”  David agrees and is blunt about it.  “Everyone has a natural tendency to make excuses for their behavior. Don’t make excuses for yours. People decide who you are on the basis of the things you do.”  Don’t make excuses for your behavior is great advice.

David also believes it is important to get noticed and the best way to get noticed is to turn whatever qualities you offer into something of value to those higher in the organization.  He suggests great ways to get noticed and build a positive personal brand:

  • earn the organization money
  • tell the truth
  • be discreet
  • keep your promises
  • make people want to work with you

2.  Your boss is the co-author of  your brand.   David makes an astute observation that your boss significantly influences how others view you.  He advises that bosses like three things:  loyalty, good advice and help with their reputation.  Everyone likes someone watching their back — do not talk negatively about your boss to your coworkers, do not complain about your boss to his or her boss. You may develop a reputation for disloyalty that negatively affects your brand.  Everyone appreciates good advice — don’t be a sycophant or contrarian — be balanced and have courage to offer constructive criticism.  Finally, help your boss’s reputation.  Do not make yourself look good at his/her expense.

3.  Managing up is not a new idea and David give practical advice.  He recommends that you understand that a boss seeks to further his own reputation and being nice to you often is part of building his or her own brand.  David also recommends taking advantage of your boss’s weaknesses because they may provide opportunities to build your own brand.  I wholeheartedly agree.  See It Doesn’t Take a Wizard to Build a Better Boss.

4.  Have good manners and treat everyone well.  Good manners demonstrate you belong in the executive world and treating everyone well demonstrates compassion.  David recounts stories of bad manners or inadvertently mistreating someone important which derailed careers.  He also recommends behaving appropriately at all company functions — even fun events.

5.  Know when to stay and when to go.  David seems to agree with  Jeffrey Pfeffer who recommends it is better to change organizations rather than trying to change people’s minds about one’s performance and potential.

6.  Someone is always watching you.  David warns that you are always on display and every interaction contributes or detracts from your reputation.  Your reputation is rarely made by one big event — more often it is the accumulation of day-to-day interactions, exchanges and your work habits.  He recommends to develop good habits.

7.  You will make enemies so make the right ones.  David is blunt: you will make enemies.   As you become more successful, there will be more people who will not confront you directly but will try to destroy you with gossip.  This is the one piece of advice that comes the closest to warfare:  have no mercy for disloyalty.  I have to admit I think this is pretty good advice and I have not seen described quite this way elsewhere.

8.  Avoid overconfidence.  He recommends six steps to avoid becoming enamored with your own success:

  1. Be skeptical of your own genius
  2. Surround yourself the equally skeptical people
  3. Keep the friends who remind you that you’re human
  4. Have some sympathy for your victims
  5. Develop interests other than golf
  6. Remember who feeds your family — your customers and your shareholders

9.  Be forthright with the press.  As you become more successful, you may be subject to public scrutiny.  Be candid and straightforward with the press.

10.  The price of success is eternal vigilance, to paraphrase a popular expression.  David notes that your brand is constantly being compared to others’ and that one has to be resilient about setbacks.  He, like Jeffrey Pfeffer, recommends asking for opportunities.

I really liked David’s candid approach, his “war” stories, and his sound advice.  Let me know if you have read any of David’s other books — Executive Warfare:  10 Rules of Engagement for Winning Your War for Success or Brand Warfare:  10 Rules for Building the Killer Brand


  • Nathan S. Gibson

    Nathan S. Gibson is an independent worker compliance business partner who provides expertise and creative solutions to enhance workforce flexibility and maintain compliance. He helps mitigate the risks associated with the misclassification of self-employed consultants, freelancers and independent contractors.

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