Feature Stories Alumni: Peter de Silva '84 shares leadership lessons

UMassD alum Peter de Silva '84
Feature Stories Alumni: Peter de Silva '84 shares leadership lessons
Peter de Silva '84 shares leadership lessons

After a 35-year career in financial services, de Silva shares his guiding principles in his book, "Taking Stock"

Your first professional job. A major personal milestone. New colleagues. Changing jobs. Overcoming a challenging situation.

Life is punctuated by experiences, events, and people that add to the variety of shapes and colors that make up one’s life mosaic. After 35 years as a leader in the financial services industry, Peter de Silva ’84 is inspired to share the pieces of his mosaic, the personal and professional moments and experiences that contributed to a set of principles that have guided him as a leader. His new book, “Taking Stock: 10 Life and Leadership Principles from My Seat at the Table,” shares a retrospective of his career, recounting job relocations, leadership changes, challenges, risks taken, and colleagues who helped shape his perspectives.

de Silva’s journey began at UMass Dartmouth, attending classes in the Charlton College of Business while working 40-50 hours a week full time at Cinema 140. “It mattered to me what I got out of attending college. Besides knowledge and intellectual growth, UMassD gave me a platform on which I would live my life,” said de Silva.

de Silva took one of his first career risks in 1987, pursuing a job opportunity at Fidelity Investments. Facing competition from recruits from the nation’s top business schools, and without financial services experience, de Silva leveraged his work ethic to start as a management trainee at Fidelity. There, he sought out roles that allowed him to make the most impact at the company while adding to his skills and career growth. 

de Silva’s 10 leadership principles

That 18-month management trainee program led to de Silva’s 35-year career with several of the country’s leading financial services corporations: from Fidelity’s Boston offices to their Kentucky location, to UMB Financial Corporation in Kansas City, Missouri, to Scottrade and TD Ameritrade in St. Louis. He later became a senior fellow in Harvard University’s exclusive Advanced Leadership Institute. Through relocations, acquisitions, and a national financial crisis, all while dealing with his own personal health issues, de Silva developed the 10 principles he shares in “Taking Stock.”

  • Create and communicate a compelling vision and purpose
  • Properly align strategy, structure, and people
  • Engage, develop, and retain superior diverse talent
  • Focus and finish
  • Take intelligent risks on emerging leaders
  • Take care of your associates
  • Build enduring, mutually beneficial relationships
  • Lead by principles, not rules
  • Collaborate
  • Operate with a sense of urgency

de Silva remained perceptive about how each team he led or project he managed added to his mosaic, contributing new perspectives and lessons each time that would inform his principles or “guardrails” for the future. Encountering a variety of leaders and mentors in each company, he observed characteristics he wished to emulate—or not—in them. While managing through challenging mergers and crises, he favored leading with principles, not rules. In 2008, de Silva and colleagues at UMB weathered the financial crisis by adhering to their CEO’s principle of doing what’s right, not what’s popular at the time—even accepting lower earnings by not making subprime loans, but doing what was prudent for their customers. 

Valuing of people and relationships is central to de Silva’s principles, and is a recurring topic in his book. “Building relationships is elemental. Take care of your associates, they will take care of the clients, and the rest will take care of itself,” de Silva writes. His emphasis on relationships allowed him to build the high-performing, effective teams that successfully tackled critical moments: “I eventually came to realize the power of individuals working together as teams and the power of complementary strengths.” 

“Success is not the structure,” de Silva explains in his book. “It is in the people and how they collaborate.”

UMassD alum Peter de Silva '84 with business students
Peter de Silva with Charlton College of Business students following his presentation

Adding to the mosaic

Many of the first pieces of de Silva’s mosaic were placed while he was a student at UMass Dartmouth. He recently shared his career journey and reflections with current Charlton College of Business students, adding a few more elements to his never-ending mosaic, while helping to create theirs.

In his presentation to students, de Silva highlighted a few of the principles in “Taking Stock” and discussed the importance of vulnerability as a leadership strength, as he described how he addressed his Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), a rare, incurable neurological disease. After many years, de Silva finally disclosed his illness to his colleagues. “Being vulnerable leads to authenticity, which is what people want from their leaders,” he said.

Students posed thoughtful questions related to their explorations of their own leadership skills and career aspirations. de Silva’s timeless advice resonated: “It’s important to find ways to take risks so you can grow,” he said. 

de Silva remains involved at UMassD, a place to which he is inextricably linked, as a member of the UMass Dartmouth Foundation Board, and a loyal donor. Through his community involvement and commitment to CMT awareness, de Silva continues to add to his mosaic and contribute to that of others. “I’m not done learning or making contributions. My mosaic is still developing. I know I have much more to give as I successfully traverse my life’s third chapter.”

Learn more about Peter de Silva's career and leadership principles in his book, "Taking Stock: 10 Life and Leadership Principles from My Seat at the Table," here.