A students receive great grades in part because they capitalize on expected opportunities. In school, they are astute about what they must do to obtain top marks, and they do it. In their careers, many A students also make it their business to know what it takes to get ahead in a given company. For this reason, they often follow a relatively predictable path, receiving job offers and job assignments suited to the fast track. They assume they will be offered jobs by companies like General Electric and major consulting firms like McKinsey. They expect to be promoted to managerial positions after a short period of time as individual contributors. They are confident that they will receive partnership offers in professional service firms after putting in their years as associates. As long as they work hard and view their careers strategically, their opportunities will come to them.

C students, on the other hand, must be alert for unexpected opportunities. More than that, they have to put themselves in positions to seize these opportunities when they arise. As you probably have already learned, you aren’t going to be the automatic choice for a top job or the person who is handed the most challenging, visible assignment. You may not be the one chosen for the executive training program. The good news is that you can create or seize unexpected chances to gain experience and shine. You can impress a boss, acquire a critical skill, or achieve a significant goal in all sorts of ways that other people in your organization may ignore. You shouldn’t ignore them, so let’s look at the range of unexpected opportunities available to you.


Think about some of the unexpected jobs and experiences of the high achievers we’ve discussed, ones that have been opportunities in disguise. Norm Bobins had a great job at American National Bank and had worked there for fourteen years, but then some changes were made and he was a bit miffed. During this time he received a job offer to be the number two person at a much smaller bank. Norm told me that if he had received the offer six months sooner or six months later, he probably would not have viewed it as an opportunity, since it meant taking a step down, at least in terms of the size of bank. At the time, though, he was alert for alternatives to the position he was in, so when the offer was made he accepted it. As it happened, this was the turning point of his career, a chance to move from a number two to number one job and to use his own strategy to help a bank grow by leaps and bounds.


Art Frigo was in his early thirties and had moved from a consulting firm to work as a special assistant to the president for one of the firm’s clients. He was happy in this corporate job, and at one point the president put him in charge of eight of the companies that weren’t performing well and asked him to help turn them around. It was a tremendous challenge, but through astute analysis, consolidation, and cost-cutting, Art met the challenge.

Then the company president became sick and a new person stepped into the job. Art hated his new boss, who he termed “rude and crude,” and he told me, “I decided that I wasn’t as in control of my situation as I thought. I didn’t want to turn fifty and feel like I needed this job.” At this low point in his career, Art was forced to think outside the box. He came up with the “radical” notion that he might buy the business. At the time, the concept of a leveraged buyout was virtually unheard of. Nonetheless, Art came up with an innovative financing strategy that became one of the first leveraged buyouts in the country, using Citibank’s new asset-based practice to help him. This unusual strategy launched Art’s entrepreneurial career. With hindsight, he says, “Bad moments can catalyze your career. They wake you up and give you the energy to pursue opportunities you might have missed.”

Opportunities aren’t limited to jobs with other companies. They can also exist within an organization. Unfortunately, when people consider internal opportunities, they usually only look up. Sometimes they need to look sideways or see the hidden opportunities that most people miss. For instance, people can capitalize on seemingly mundane tasks and use them to demonstrate their value to the company. Sam Morasca, the Shell vice president, talked about the importance of doing more than people expect as a way to show management that you have something to contribute. Early in his career at Shell, he was asked to prepare a report analyzing data for use in a senior executive meeting. His boss explained what to do and Sam saw what his predecessor had done, but he also noticed that some interesting data was being ignored. It meant more work, but Sam decided to incorporate the new data into the report, and his efforts were immediately appreciated and commented on in the senior executive meeting.