The taxonomy of A-holes

A story

When I was 22, I read one of books that were meant to teach you how to get “ahead” in your career. In it, the author espouses the importance of having mentors. He recommended that when selecting a mentor you do not ask your manager but the person running the company or a captain of industry. The worst case scenario is they don’t respond or say “no”

So I did just that. From my lowly desk, in my cube at the bottom of the food chain, I emailed the guy running the day-to-day operations of this massive investment bank. I had only seen him on the corporate intranet or heard him speak on earnings calls. I hit send and had a brief moment of panic. 

Minutes later, I received a reply from him. “Sure, no problem, meet me tomorrow at 3:30.” The first thought I had was, “Crap, I need to buy a suit”
I spent that night wondering what to ask him and settled on three things: 1) What is the single most important piece of advice you can give me 2) What area of investment banking should I focus on 3) Can I get to your level and still have a happy marriage?

His answer to the first question has stuck with me for the past 14 years. He said,

 “Don’t be an asshole. You can be effective as an a-hole and get stuff done but one day you will screw up big time and all those people that you were an a-hole too will take a step back and let you fall. Work hard, help everyone you can, teach people what you know and don’t expect anything in return”

This single piece of advice has had tremendous impact on my career. A decade and a half later I’m ready to pay it forward and teach people what I have learned about a-holes.

I have met many different types of people in my career. Consulting has also put me into contact with many types of people. I began to see trends in the people I met. 

But first we have to create a ubiquitous quadrant to neatly classify people.

AQ (A-hole quadrant)

The most interesting quadrant to me is the upper left: the smart-ass

Some of the characteristics of the smart ass:

  • People would rather quit than work for them
  • Peers want that person to fail
  • Not a leader but can be a great manager
  • Tolerated for their intelligence but not liked. e.g. “good guy to have around”
  • Do not receive feedback well
  • Talks more than listens
  • Has limited career growth


  •  Caution: There is a big difference between focus and being an a-hole. Many smart people get lost in thought when they are creating, aka the flow state. Don’t confuse this with being an a-hole
  • Smart a-holes can come in many forms:
  • The cocky developer
  • The pushy project manager
  • The manager that drives his people to the ground (Can also be an Idiot a-hole) Note: Organizations that promote intellectually lazy a-holes to management positions are those orgs you know need to leave
  • The guy/gal who went to an impressive sounding university and believes they are entitled to a certain level of respect
  • They often time don’t realize that people consider them to be a-holes. They are sometimes masking deep-seated insecurities
  • Current a-holes are many times future leaders, if they can make the switch (e.g. Steve Jobs < 30 & vs. Steve Jobs >30). Some of the best people I have worked with and have become some of my closest friends are recovering a-holes


The greatest gift you can do is give the SA private and candid feedback. In all likelihood, it will be a very uncomfortable experience. There may be a strong reaction, “Give me an example, I don’t agree, I just care about quality.” This is good, it means they will think about the feedback.

Give them a book. I sometimes buy people How to Win Friends and Influence People. Although the title leaves much to be desired, the chapter on how you make people feel is gold. Ask them to teach you something or teach the team something.

Many times when I show this quadrant to people one of two things seem to happen:

  1. They wonder where they fit on the quadrant
  2. They start classifying people they know

For the first. The easiest way to find out is to ask people. That’s what I did. For the second, give people the article and hope they ask you for feedback. At least they will begin thinking about it.

Awareness of being an A-hole is the first step to recovery...