Most Likely to Succeed at Work

How to Get Ahead at Work Using Everything You Learned in High School

Wilma Davidson, Ed.D., and Jack Dougherty

St. Martin's Press

The A Student

It takes twenty years to become an overnight success.—EDDIE CANTOR

Not only did A Students turn all assignments in on time, they liked doing homework. While the rest of us sighed in relief because we had actually passed the physics test with the nothing-to-be-proud-of-but-still-miraculous 75, A Students sulked having scored only a 96. Nobody asked these students to submit term papers in clear plastic folders with blue cover pages and fancy borders, but A Students always did. And the teacher affectionately affixed gold stars next to their names in the grade book.

But it is a myth that the A Student is a genius. Sure, every school had its occasional piano prodigy or MIT-bound chemistry wizard. Yet, in most cases, A Students got A’s because they simply went the extra mile. They completed all their work and the extra-credit assignments, and never complained about them or when they were due. Cramming was never their style. They were more diligent, more disciplined, and more determined. And they had a seemingly bottomless capacity to get work done, often with little instruction or oversight.

In the work world, most people who get promoted behave like A Students, even if they weren’t the first time around. The secret to their success? They surpass the boss’s expectations.

It’s not hard to picture the A Student receiving the workplace equivalent of her report card: the annual performance appraisal. The boss opens the door to an excited, if slightly nervous, employee. The A Student knows she’s completed all project assignments on time and has exceeded expectations, so she sits down, folds her hands, and waits for the accolades. And they come. A Students are lauded as role models. The boss is glowing about her “customer focus,” “results orientation,” “professionalism,” and “expertise.” A Students are a pleasure to work with and they inspire confidence in the department. The boss admits struggling to come up with any developmental advice for this employee. Perhaps, says the boss, the A Student might look for ways to strengthen memo-writing skills, which, overall, are already quite good.

Wow! What an evaluation! Most of us would do back-flips for an assessment that strong. But just a moment. Let’s check in and see how our A Student is reacting. She’s back at her desk pouring over a memo written earlier that day, looking for additional ways to revise and perfect it. And there’s one other thing you can be certain of: before the A Student leaves the office she’ll order copies of the latest books on business writing from an on-line bookseller. When they arrive, you can bet she’ll read them diligently. Because an A without the gold star just isn’t good enough. The A Student is already preparing for her next performance appraisal.

The A Student’s Communication Style

Their primary source of power is mental discipline: when around A Students, we can actually feel their seriousness of purpose. They communicate earnestness and focus. They are renowned for a strong sense of stick-to-it-ive-ness and work ethic.

A Students frequently communicate their intensity, their drive to accomplish, in their body language and their voice. They gesture frequently, their eyes focus intently, and their voice is deliberate yet energetic.

Because they listen well, A Students often ask valuable, clear, and direct questions to ensure they understand.

Although A Students are very attuned to substance, they are also in the know about style and wardrobe. They package themselves well.

The A Student’s Strengths

Preparation, preparation, preparation. They are the ones at the meeting who prepared their key points in advance, wrote a summary for the boss to offer as a leave-behind, and brought stacks of backup data to support all claims.

Ability to listen and repeat. Top students often record every word of a teacher’s lecture, then hand the material right back to the teacher a week later in a different form, whether it’s a term paper, pop quiz, or classroom discussion. Reviewing the term paper, the teacher is dazzled by the student’s brilliant analysis and penetrating insights. “The kid really gets it!” the teacher says, then smiles and scrawls A+ at the top of the report. It’s exactly the same in the workplace. A Students like pleasing authority and getting it right.

Speed. In high school, A Students’ hands were always the first in the air when the teacher asked a question. The workplace is more subtle, but A Students enjoy the same natural advantage that comes with being better prepared than their colleagues. Thus, A Students jump into conversations quickly and gracefully. They identify and seize opportunities to piggyback off other people’s comments. When others are speaking, A Students are flipping through their mind’s files, looking for a fact to connect or insert into the conversation.

Leveraging credibility and control through language. A Students use leading comments such as

—“I looked into this issue before our meeting. Let me tell you what I learned….”

—“I hope you don’t mind that I did more than you asked for. But once I dove into the assignment, I learned some things you’ll find noteworthy.”

—“I’d like to follow up on something Susan just said….”

—“I want to make sure I understand the assignment correctly. You’re asking me to…”

What Undermines the A Student’s Success

Inflexibility. A Students are notorious control freaks. They didn’t like it when the teacher put a question on the exam that was not addressed in the lecture or the readings. In high school, they could complain. In the workplace, they need to show they can improvise and go with the flow in an uncertain situation—even if it’s uncomfortable.

Inability to separate the forest from the trees. A Students often know more facts than anybody does. However, they must be careful not to get so bogged down in the facts that they forget the bigger picture—the broader ideas or themes they are discussing. They must remind themselves that spreadsheets and data, by themselves, do not add up to insight or analysis.

The know-it-all syndrome. To be credible, A Students must explain ideas and information clearly, without patronizing or overusing detail. Knowledge alone won’t move people to the top—they have to be likable as well. That takes attitude—the right attitude, that is.

Asking too many questions. While A Students may ask relevant questions to ensure that they get all the details right, others may interpret their questions differently. In highly competitive environments, questions are sometimes seen as challenges to authority. And they can make colleagues impatient.

If Your Boss or Colleague is an A Student

Match or exceed expectations. Pay careful attention to what they do and how they like things done. The best way to thrive under or with an A Student is to mirror their work ethic.

Accept the fact that A Student bosses will micromanage you. They can’t help it—it’s part of their DNA. Just do the very best work you can, smile, and say “No problem” when the boss suggests that you use ivory paper and a green binder for your report instead of the white paper and yellow binder that you’ve already printed and assembled.

Look for ways to complement their skills set. If you are a dazzling organizer of presentations, offer to help look for slides that would best accompany your boss’s or colleague’s subject matter. Soon you may find yourself an indispensable asset.

Be grateful. If your boss is an A Student, you can be pretty well assured that your department will be in ship shape and that upper management will be pleased with what they see. The better your department’s reputation, the more likely you are to be rewarded. And remember: You have a terrific example to emulate whenever you want to improve your overall work habits.

Premium Blends

The A Student–Thespian. This type can be a workplace powerhouse. Pure A Students are disciplined and conscientious, but are often so busy trying to give teachers and bosses what they want that they can forget to express themselves. The Thespian, on the other hand, is all about self-expression. The classic salesperson, this type gives you a dazzling presentation about whatever he’s selling—and can back it up with facts, figures, and statistics.

The A Student–Underachiever. This combination may seem like a contradiction, but don’t be fooled. While the Underachiever lacks the discipline of an A Student (and often a B Student, for that matter), the Underachiever has an ability to improvise and produce work that comes right from the gut, sometimes stunning a boss or teacher. (Since most of the Underachiever’s work is done at the last minute, how could he do anything but rely on gut instincts?) The A Student, on the other hand, has been thinking through the project so exhaustively that it’s possible he has thought its original spark right out of it. The point is not to start your work the night before it’s due but rather to allow yourself and your work a little spontaneity. The combination of these seemingly antithetical archetypes can produce great results.

The A Student–Cheerleader. Not all A Students have a problem working in teams, but enough of them could take a lesson or two from the optimistic and supportive Cheerleader who values collaboration and teamwork. A Students typically want to stand apart from others and, as a result, tend to be naturally competitive, while the A Student–Cheerleader blend puts individual achievement aside, celebrating departmental and company pride instead. Additionally, the A Student–Cheerleader offers kind words of encouragement, helps bring out everyone’s best work, and will never drop the ball on an assignment.

Poisonous Blend

The A Student–Prima Donna. From the moment this perfection seeker with a rock star attitude comes into your department at your very same job level, the A Student–Prima Donna behaves as if you and everyone else exist to serve and ensure the Prima Donna’s success. The only person who doesn’t seem to notice is the boss, who praises the A Student–Prima Donna’s work, somehow missing the fact that it takes a team effort to get the project finished. Grace is, unfortunately, what this blend lacks; and A Student–Prima Donnas will undoubtedly find themselves shaking their heads and wondering why nobody likes them.

MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED AT WORK Copyright © 2003 by Wilma Davidson and John F. Dougherty.