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Being an A-grade student at school no sure sign of business success [Opinion]


When my daughters brought me their report cards at the end of the year, I made a point of not getting too obsessed about their marks. I obviously encourage my daughters to do the best they can, get good marks, apply themselves, and try, try, try!

But if they don’t get top grades, I don’t fuss all that much either.

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This may sound like heresy to most educationalists and parents, but the reality is that there is a poor correlation between good grades at school, and success out there in the real world.

In fact the ability to get A’s on a report card may demonstrate just that — the ability to get A’s on a report card. It may not be an indicator of success in future business or leadership.

The ability to get A’s on a report card may not be an indicator of success in future business or leadership

Jim Schleckser who is boss of the respected business magazine Inc.’s CEO Project says that there is a dirty little secret out there: “A students don’t grow up to lead companies”.

He then follows up with this strong statement: “… they rarely go on to lead anything”.

‘B students make best leaders’

He makes a convincing argument on the website, saying that “B” students actually end up making the best leaders in business, because business is a balance of brains as well as people skills.

Schleckser argues that today’s education system treats learning like a “post-industrial-age production line”, making it easy to get obsessed with the idea that your child or student needs to get a perfect report card to be successful in their career.

He then points to research by US Military Academy West Point which shows that a disproportional amount of B students go on to become leaders of thousands of people and manage budgets in the billions of dollars.

The point, argues Schleckser, is that leadership in organisations rarely “has anything to do with pure intellect alone”.

He says that while A students can make great individual contributors, maybe as scientists, engineers, doctors or professors, they may not have developed the same interpersonal skills that B students have.

Schleckser also says that he finds C students the most interesting of the lot.

While A students may be your intellectual number crunchers or your professors, and B students your future leaders – he says that it is the C students who are the “wild cards”. These are the students that are “entrepreneurial mavericks” who will go on to start successful companies.

This obviously is taken in a purely business and entrepreneurial context. In the professional context, to be a top academic, doctor or actuary and in order to get into university you need to get those A’s, but the point is that for entrepreneurial or business leadership success, those top marks may not be as important as we think they are.

‘Musk an unspectacular student’

An autobiography of Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance adds anecdotal support to this idea, painting the billionaire as a “likable, quiet, unspectacular student” who was not considered to be one of the brightest in his class at Pretoria Boys High. By all accounts, Musk excelled at university, where he could focus on subjects that interested him.

Here in SA, a straw poll of some entrepreneurial leaders yielded some interesting results.

Well known San Francisco based entrepreneur and local Shark Tank investor Vinny Lingham reports that he was a C, “borderline B”, student.

Former FNB head, serial investor and co-founder of new banking startup Bank Zero, Michael Jordaan, reports that he was a solid B student. Former head, now turned investor, Gidon Novick reports that he was “between A and B”.

This is absolutely not a call to slack off, and it’s important to not buy into any type of predeterminism.

If you are an A student, it does not mean you won’t grow into a business leader or an entrepreneurial genius.

Moreover if you are a B or C student, it does not mean you will be a business leader or an entrepreneur. It’s just a reminder that things in life are not as cut-and-dried as we think they are.

Keep pushing for those high marks, but if you don’t get them, it may not be the end of the world.

More from Matthew Buckland

Section 12J VC incentive a good start, but government can do more [Opinion]
How corporates are jumping to work with tech startups [Opinion]
Your pitch deck is your business story, but don’t let it baffle investors [Opinion]
How Naspers could help find SA’s next great tech startups [Opinion]
Pick a sector, add internet and your firm could be worth millions [Opinion]
Time for startups to get over myth of the ‘one big idea’ and just get going [Opinion]
What really is the secret to getting a VC deal? [Opinion]
SA’s startup ecosystem offers a positive vision of country’s future [Opinion]
Indonesian unicorn shows Silicon Valley model can’t beat going local [Opinion]
What’s the secret ingredient that makes entrepreneurs successful? [Opinion]H]

Matthew Buckland is an investor, entrepreneur, founder of This column was first published in Business Day. See the original version here.

Featured image: 27707 via Pixabay

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