I was an OK student. My GPA generally floated around 3.3 on a 4.0 scale. I showed up fairly often in the honor roll. I even had an award for academic excellence for consistently acing tests that others could not.
However, I didn’t see myself as an “A” student. The primary reason is I did not have the mindset. Grades were a random output of my love of learning. I had to pay attention on occasion because if the grades dropped too low, there were consequences. I observed that I was often not given the benefit of the doubt in grading when I was not considered a high grade achiever. I saw this happen to other folks who were otherwise what I considered very smart and capable. I noticed that I was given greater leeway in my pursuit of knowledge when I maintained higher grades.
So what? Well, I’ve always been fascinated by how projects and organizations apparently populated by a lot of smart people, often just didn’t do well. I spent 20 years in the Air Force followed by just over 10 years in the corporate world. There was an unsettling management consistency between these two worlds. I’ve come to call it the “A” Student Syndrome. The “A” Student Syndrome is associated with very good people who populated the organization, but the organization as a whole just didn’t perform real well.
I did pretty well in organizations that were not doing well. I was a bit of a nonconformist making naive sounding claims about how we can get more things done and how we can avoid missing deadlines and how we can improve quality. Worse yet, I had a tendency to run off without formal approval and go do the things I talked about. Very often I never even brought them up, and folks just discovered I was doing them. In many cases by the time I was found out and told that is was not worth the time or resources to pursue my idea — and it wouldn’t work in any case — it was already done and successful.
I quickly discovered that this was not the optimum path to promotion and recognition! Many very successful people were telling me that this was unwise and I needed to change my approach to be more like their’s. Their approach, however, was not causing the organization to be successful, even though they were individually successful. Later, I would come across a quote from John Maynard Keynes that it is better for one’s reputation to fail conventionally then it was to succeed unconventionally. I kept wondering, what is going on here?
How can an organization not perform well when it gets populated with “the best and the brightest” as we said in the Air Force? I suggest it is largely because we populate key positions with our “A” students. The “A” student knows how to tune into the powers-that-be and give back what is requested. They excel at this. When a company has good leadership and a culture of excellence and success the “A” student will mimic and achieve similar excellence and also drive further project success.
What happens when things change? What happens when that leadership, the teacher, leaves and maybe some of those “A” students take up the leadership without guidance from an insightful leader? What happens when there is a bad spell in the company or the economy or the government? What happens when for awhile everyone is just trying to survive? What happens when an “A” student joins an organization where the culture is to not rock the boat? Well, I suggest in all these cases, the “A” student adapts and does what is appropriate to continue to get the “A.”
If the way we survive, get the “A” from the manager, is to not rock the boat then we don’t rock the boat. If to survive, get the “A”, is by back channel maneuvers and spreading innuendo to undermine another manager who is doing the same to us then we adapt and learn to do that well. If every new CEO who comes in leaves in a few years and the company continues a long downhill slide, we learn how to survive and adapt by looking good to the CEO, who we know will not be around long. We did everything required and we got the “A.”
The bottom line is that this kind of “A” student takes their considerable talent and adopts behaviors that allow them to survive if not move up by getting the “A.” How well the company does is no longer, if it ever was, the concern of the individual. We, the “A” student are doing fine. Look, we just got promoted to Senior VP!
Is there a solution? The first insight is that for every half dozen or so “A” students, we need a few nonconforming disruptors. The “A” students provide stability. The disruptors help the organization break out into new areas. They find the new and the different and they are not constrained by what is needed to get the “A.”
There is nothing new in this notion. Most team building, Meyers-Briggs applications, participative management theories, all talk about needing diversity in groups. This diversity provides the spark, as folks bump up against each other’s differences, that make the group greater than any individual, even the “A” student. One sees reports in the media that in a down economy there are too many “yes men” trying to keep their bosses happy and this is bad for business. We’ve all heard about “group think” where everyone strives to stay in agreement (or showing the same behaviors) as the “best” way to succeed.
The second insight is that these are still “A” students. If we give them good direction, redefine what it takes to get the “A” they will then — as they have done in the past — perform well against the goal. I often talk of taking an organization, eliminating key bad management habits, and watching the same people + process + tools (minus the bad habits) perform exceptionally well. This is in large part, I’ve concluded, because our “A” students are now focused on doing the right things — and they will do it as well as they were doing the less effective things.
Make sure our “A” students get the proper direction and motivation and the project and organization should do well. Allow the “A” students to lose their way and we may have considerable talent working against the best interest of the organization. Ensure we have a good mixture of nonconformist distruptors and “A” students in leadership positions. This helps to provide a balanced range of ideas and behavior to allow us to adapt to and to exploit a changing world.