Dr. Tony Alessandra explains why the best sales managers learn on the job.

Did you study really hard in school? Some of us probably did more than others. But we all studied to take tests about facts and figures. We studied in high school to ace the SAT. We studied in college to get top grades. Studying was a discipline. Sometimes we learned, but the goal was to pass tests.

Most of us don’t remember much of what we studied in school. Real learning comes from life experience, and most of what we really need to know about our actual jobs, we learn on the job. This is particularly true for sales managers.

For this month’s guest post, I asked Dr. Tony Alessandra to clear up the definition of formal knowledge versus street smarts, and explain which is better for sales managers. Below is his take. What do you think?

Street Smarts

by Dr. Tony Alessandra

According to Dr. Robert Sternberg of Yale, “street smarts” is a far better predictor of managerial success than academic performance. His research even suggests that a very high I.Q. could be a detriment to managerial success.

His theory of intelligence goes beyond the traditional notion of I.Q. He believes there are three facets to intelligence:

  • abstract intelligence—the ability to analyze, deduce, and think logically
  • experiential intelligence—the ability to creatively combine different experiences to solve a problem
  • contextual intelligence—the ability to use one’s environment to play the game

The latter, intelligence within a context, Sternberg also calls street smarts, practical intelligence, or tacit knowledge.

“I don’t think street smarts has anything to do with big cities or small cities,” Sternberg states. “It’s no longer a negative term that conjures up images of street gangs or con artists. There is no denying that street smarts has its roots in the impoverished areas of inner cities, places in which people had to develop certain abilities just to survive physically; but just as blues singers are no longer slaves, street smart people are no longer just city-dwellers. They are born, raised, live, and work in all types of environments.

“I use the term much more generically. In any pursuit in life there is a formal knowledge base and an informal knowledge base. The formal knowledge base is what you’re told. It’s what you get in the manual when you start a job. It’s what you get in the coursework in college. Informal knowledge is everything they don’t bother to tell you. And usually that’s the stuff that makes the most difference. It’s the stuff they can’t say and wouldn’t say if they could. That’s why we call it tacit knowledge. It’s what you learn from your environment. You might say it’s the unwritten rules of life.”

So how do you learn to be street smart? Work on developing these elements of street smarts:


A. Trust your intuition

B. Develop perceptiveness and the ability to anticipate

C. Size up people quickly and accurately

D. See the big picture


A. Fake it till you make it

B. Use chutzpa when necessary

C. Believe in yourself—Be confident


A. Don’t believe everything you see and hear

B. Be hard to take advantage of

C. Use your “mental categories” and generalizations to keep you on guard

D. Give people the time and rope to either hang themselves or prove their integrity/sincerity


A. Think quickly on your feet

B. Be persistent

C. Be prepared

D. Be flexible

E. Change your surroundings or adapt

F. Surround yourself with experts & contacts

About the Author

Dr. Tony Alessandra has a street-wise, college-smart perspective on business. Raised in the housing projects of NYC, he eventually realized success as a graduate professor of marketing, internet entrepreneur, business author, and hall-of-fame keynote speaker. He earned a BBA from Notre Dame, a MBA from the University of Connecticut, and his PhD in marketing from Georgia State University. Dr. Tony has authored 30+ books and 100+ audio/video programs. He was inducted into the NSA Speakers Hall of Fame (1985) and Top Sales World’s Hall of Fame (2010).  Meetings & Conventions Magazine has called him “one of America’s most electrifying speakers.” He is also the founder/CVO of Assessments 24×7—a global leader of white-labeled DISC assessments, delivered from easy-to-use online accounts that are popular with business coaches and Fortune 500 trainers around the world.