What they do not tell you about class toppers


If you were the top student of your class, does it mean that you will land up being the CEO?

To answer this question, Karen Arnold, a researcher at Boston College, followed 81 high school toppers and those who were top of the class after they finished academics to track their progress. Are they doing well? Are they successful? For one, that depends on what you define as success.


Here is what the research showed. 90 percent of toppers are now in professional careers with 40 percent in the highest tier jobs. But none of them has changed the world, if that is what you want to know. Arnold says, “Even though most are strong occupational achievers, the great majority of former high school valedictorians do not appear headed for the very top of adult achievement arenas.” In short, most toppers seem to have walked along the road that was well-travelled. They have not cleared the jungle and crafted a fresh path.

Should we discourage our kids from giving their best in school and college? Should we tell them that their doing well in school and college is a sure sign that they will not be changing the world once they enter the world of work?

Should employers stop looking at grades as a predictor of success at work? What does it mean when someone says that they had spotless academic grades?

Grades and intelligence

Most schools tend to reward students who follow instructions. When asked to colour a box, the students who listen to the instructions and ensure that all crayon markers are inside the box. The students who do that are displaying self-discipline, conscientiousness, and the ability to comply with rules. The teacher’s favourites are students who do what the teacher tells them to do without questioning.

Academic grades are only loosely correlated with intelligence. Standardised tests are a better measure of IQ (though some would question that too). Academic achievements are often the result of individual effort or intelligence or ability to follow instructions.

If the job needs someone to work on their own (scientists running experiments in their labs by themselves, for instance), then without doubt academic grades will be correlated with success in that job. In a job where success is not dependent on influencing and interacting with others, toppers will do well. Analysts or investment bankers or (some) academicians often can excel by just working alone. Those are jobs where the school or college topper will rise to the top. They excel as individual contributors.

If the job involves working in a team, selling an idea, persuading people to adopt a point of view, then social skills matter.

Influencing, negotiating

Most jobs in organisations fall in this category. Think of each function (sales, HR, finance, manufacturing…) and you will see that all of them need the ability to work with others and influence people to adopt a particular approach. To succeed, one needs emotional intelligence, empathy, rapport building and social skills.

When people reach the end of their ability to influence, they term the environment as “political”. In an organisation, it is not necessarily the best idea that will win. It is one that everyone signs up for. That involves influencing others to give their time, attention, resources and support. This is what toppers are often not necessarily good at, if they have not worked at developing their social skills.

If you believe that being a CEO is all about working hard and having brilliant ideas, think again. It involves being “political savvy” to handle the media, disgruntled employees, persuading board members, and more. CEOs have often built networks that support them as they move an organisation along.

Being “influential” is the socially acceptable term for being politically savvy. Being competent is not enough to be successful. People have to want to work with you to make you successful.

At work, successful people are the ones who think “outside the box”. We celebrate mavericks and thinkers who break boundaries and connect the dots the others cannot see. That is what toppers need to learn as well.

Should employers stop asking for college grades while offering someone a job? Steve Jobs was a college dropout. So are Bill Gates and Zuckerberg. Does that mean that we should stop trying to excel in college. Or does excelling in college stand as a proxy for a trait employers will value regardless of the job?

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)


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