‘Officers eat last in the mess hall’

As president and CEO of Advaxis, a biotech firm based in Princeton, N.J., Dan O’Connor has turned around a struggling company into a leading developer of cancer immunotherapies. In his three years at the helm, he’s grown Advaxis from five to 75 employees. A former U.S. Marine, O’Connor worked as a criminal prosecutor in New Jersey before becoming a corporate attorney. In 2015, Ernst & Young named him Entrepreneur of the Year in New Jersey.

Executive Leadership: What did your experience in the Marines teach you about leadership?

O’Connor: From the first day in the Marines, you learn you have to earn the privilege to lead. You must be selfless. You put the needs of those you lead ahead of your needs.

Can you give an example?

Officers always eat last in the mess hall. You put yourself at the end of the line. But it’s more than that. If your unit is facing a dangerous situation, you go first into the danger. You don’t lead from behind. If there’s a dirty job to do, you do it.

How has that selflessness influenced how you lead today?

Three-plus years ago, when we didn’t have enough money to make payroll, I said, “Everyone else gets paid first.” It was a difficult time for the company. But I promised our employees that they would be paid per normal pay cycle. They understood the point of what I was saying and they appreciated how I put them first. They could’ve left. But they stayed and worked hard and we got through it.

What else stayed with you from your years in the Marines?

They use an acronym that I haven’t forgotten 25 years later: JJDIDTIEBUCKLE. Judgment, justice, dependability, integrity, decisiveness, tact, initiative, endurance, bearing and all these other elements of leadership. I still think of these traits all the time. Take bearing. It means you’re unflappable when you’re under stress and people are yelling at you. You don’t let emotions cloud your thinking. Tact is another one. If someone acts out, you don’t react at the same level. You respond with tact. These traits are ingrained.

As CEO, how can you instill these traits in employees?

You lead by example. It’s doing it. It’s showing it. And it’s contagious. Also, when I’m interviewing people, I look for these traits.

How does your understanding of leadership affect how you communicate with employees?

We value an attitude of gratefulness. A good leader is grateful. I bet I say “thank you” five times a day. It shows you’re not taking their hard work for granted.

As CEO, how can you instill these traits in employees?

You lead by example. It’s doing it. It’s showing it. And it’s contagious. Also, when I’m interviewing people, I look for these traits.

Speaking of presentations, what’s your public speaking style?

When I’m talking with our employees, I don’t make any prepared remarks. Maybe when I’m walking down the hall to a meeting, I’ll organize my thoughts. I try to keep it in threes by thinking of the three things I want to say. By not preparing too much, I come across as more genuine. People question someone who isn’t genuine. They can tell. It’s all in the connection.