Scott H Young

“It’s Who You Know”


I’ve often heard the titular expression in conversations about professional success. Uttered with a sneer, it seems to point at the unfairness of life and the hopelessness of the masses of people without good connections.

It’s also an expression that is mostly true. Talent and effort matter, of course, but the gears of the machine are greased with favoritism. No discussion of career success can omit the importance of the people you know.

I don’t see this situation as being necessarily pessimistic. I want to argue two things:

  1. This isn’t unfair.
  2. Building connections is an equally important part of building a career as is the work you do.

Is a World Run by Connections an Unjust One?

Saying that, “it’s all who you know,” smacks of injustice. After all, what possible relevance could who you went to school with, or whether you play golf, have on your ability to do your job?

I have friends, usually the intellectually-powerful-yet-somewhat-introverted engineer and programmer types, who find the idea that relationships might matter more than talent as insulting. Either they reject outright the importance of having a network, or they view it as a distasteful reality.

This is nonsense. Relationships matter because they impact performance. Since they impact performance, it’s not unfair that some opportunity would flow through them.

When I’m hiring people to do work for me, my first place to ask is my friends to see if they have worked with anyone before. I’m often willing to pay more for these people than I would for someone I hire through job postings. To the prospective freelancer I’ll employ, this sounds unfair. After all, shouldn’t the job go to the person who is most qualified for the given price?

I’ve learned that technical proficiency is only a small part of what makes a good candidate. Being trustworthy, timely and easy to communicate with are often more important, yet these are features difficult to ascertain from a portfolio. Sterile recommendations from past employers I’ve never met before say almost nothing.

I’m willing to pay more for contractors that come recommended, because they do the job better. It’s not nepotism, it’s basic economics.

The same is true of business connections. I have a no-guest-post policy for this website, yet I’ve had people guest post here and probably will continue to do so for the future. The catch? I only let people write here if I read them and respect the work they’ve done prior to writing here. It may seem unfair, but it has meant each of my guest posts have done incredibly well for exposure and traffic, benefiting both me and the author.

A big way I would find out about someone is if they were in my network. As a result, my friends end up writing guest posts and I say no to strangers. They need to be interesting writers, certainly, but if they weren’t good at networking, I probably wouldn’t know them.

I can’t say whether the amount relationships matter is ideal. Maybe myself and others care about them too much, and as a result, create unfairness. All I would like to imply is that there is a just rationale for the titular expression, even if it may not be optimal.

If It’s Who You Know, What Should You Do?

I grew up in a small town, isolated from any possible useful connections or mentors. I’d also say I’m definitely not a born networker. While some people have a disposition towards easily making new contacts, it is definitely a skill I’ve had to train.

That said, I believe networking is a skill that can be learned. It’s not just having an extroverted personality or natural charm. Some of the best networkers I know are actually somewhat introverted.

Networking also doesn’t need to be sleazy. The people I know with huge networks are the complete opposite of that. If you feel sleazy, it means you’re doing it wrong.

As someone who isn’t at all a natural connector, I’ve found focusing on three core traits have helped me the most:

  1. Be high value
  2. Be generous
  3. Be gregarious

#1 – Be High Value

People want to meet people of high value. If Barack Obama asked you to lunch, would you say no? Of course not. Obama is high value and even meeting with him over lunch could have tremendous benefit.

The desire to meet and befriend high-value people is an innate one. It’s why people want their photos taken with celebrities or have their autographs. It isn’t just a calculating maneuver, but a genuine urge to associate with people perceived to be higher value than oneself.

Therefore, the biggest step you can take to improve your networking ability is to be higher value. There’s a few broad strategies I’ve seen be successful for increasing your value in a networking context:

  1. Do interesting things. I have a friend that has done martial arts training for the military and another who speaks over ten languages. These are people others want to meet, even if they have no interest in linguistics or fighting.
  2. Improve your skills in a demonstrable way. Talent makes you higher value, so a big way to improve your network is to demonstrate you are good at something valuable.
  3. Have other good connections. If you build your network enough, you can become a higher value person, simply by knowing other high value people. This one is not a beginner step, but it does explain some of the exponential returns you can get from networking.

#2 – Be Generous

A big turning point in my own networking was to stop trying to network with people who could help me, and focus on people I could help. I’m much more likely to reach out to someone if I feel I can help them as much as they could help me.

Everyone wants to network with people who can easily help them. I’ve found it much better to focus on who I can help first. As a result, I contact a lot more bloggers who have really great writing, but are still new, than I try to befriend already-famous authors.

Being generous is also about anticipating what others might need. Whenever I get an email with, “Let me know if there’s any way I can help!” I usually ignore it. Why? Because I have no idea how that person can help, I barely know them.

When I reach out to someone, I try to research them carefully to figure out how I might be able to help them, and read for clues in our initial conversation. Maybe they can use advice, website traffic or would benefit from connecting with another friend of mine?

Generosity isn’t a last step, it’s an attitude you need to have at all parts of the process. The best networkers I know are relentlessly focused on helping their friends do well before themselves.

#3 – Be Gregarious

The final step is to be eager and willing to meet new people. If you wait at home on Friday nights hoping for the phone to ring, you’re not going to get a lot of dates. The same is true with building connections.

Because I started my business in such an isolated place, I grew up on networking via the internet. With Skype and video calls, this isn’t a terrible way to get to know people, especially since it drastically broadens who you can contact.

But even if internet contacts can still be valuable, there is still a lot of value in meeting people face-to-face. I strive to travel regularly to meet people I’ve met online, and I try to take any opportunity I can to meet other interesting people in-person.

Being gregarious is most useful when you don’t currently need a favor. Too many people go into networking mode at conferences or social gatherings only when they need something. This contradicts the spirit of generosity and results in spurned connections, even if it works occasionally.

An Introvert’s Guide to Networking

I’ve hesitated writing about this topic recently, not because I do poorly, but because I’ve had the chance to meet people who are spectacular. I’ve changed my mind because I realize that this is part of the problem: many spectacular networkers are naturally good at it, so regular people feel it’s not a skill that can be learned.

The fact that it is, indeed, who you know for many opportunities, doesn’t need to be an obstacle. Getting to know people is definitely a skill that can be learned. Because it depends on being a better person, it’s a good skill to learn, not just a distasteful necessity.


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35 Responses to ““It’s Who You Know””

  1. […] also an expression that is mostly true. Talent and effort matter, of course, but the …read more Via: Scott H Young   February 14th, 2013 | Category: […]

  2. Hi Scott, good post, but a few comments:

    I believe there might be a cultural factor you’re missing out on. In some parts, getting a job or position through connections is actually considered dishonest. I don’t think the value of networking is as universally high as you make it out to be (though it’s certainly high for most of the Western, corporate world).

    Secondly, “Relationships matter because they impact performance” — could you elaborate on or quantify this? I understand that relationships impact hiring decisions since you’re more likely to trust people you know or have worked with before. But hiring is not equivalent to performance.

    Third: if you have guest posts of any form, that contradicts a “no-guest-post” policy. it’s probably more accurate to say that you don’t accept requests to write guest posts — you only extend invitations to people you’ve already vetted.

    Finally: I think the list you’ve provided is great, but I have an issue with the “be generous” part. What about the case where I legitimately need or want help from someone but don’t have much to offer in return? Examples would include a new grad student asking a professor in another university about research questions. Pay it forward is definitely a great life policy, but how do we deal with the exceptions to the rule?

  3. Don Osborne says:

    I whole-heartedly agree, Scott. If you look at humankind, you’ll agree we are social animals. We look groups, we want to be in family / tribal units, we naturally create hierarchy within our groups, and we like to curry favor from our leaders and our elders.

    Who here would not be impressed if President Obama called you on the phone and asked, “I was wondering if you could give me your thoughts on something…?” We like and seek this type of recognition.

    So it’s only logical to give this type of recognition, too. Call it social karma, call it recognizing talent, but if you want to get recognized, then give recognition.

    Especially today, with access to each other so much easier than it has ever been, giving recognition and acknowledging the contributions of others is easier than ever.

    Build up your relationship with other tribal leaders, and before you know it, you’ll feel comfortable asking your colleagues for help. And they will ask you for help, too.

  4. Brian says:

    I’d like to second Shrutarshi’s last point especially. How does a student wanting to learn about a profession go about providing value to a mentor, professor, practitioner, etc?

  5. NR Henderson says:

    Scott good points on networking! I heartily agree.

    Shrutarshi, you may be right that there are places in the world where using connections to get a job is frowned on (dishonest is a bit much), but I can’t think of a single one and I can guarantee that for every place it is frowned on there are 10 where it is the normal course of business.

    Now you may be thinking that in many places there are necessary hurdles–exams, tests, certifications, degrees–but these are not sufficient to get the job. And you may mean that using connection to get a job for which you are not qualified is wrong, but that is entirely a different issue.

    I’m kind of amused that you bring up the cultural issue, generally it’s only Westerners who make a pretense of objectivity in these sorts of matters. Being from BC, Scott is a true Westerner ;) ! (This is with the possible exception of school exams out of the Confucian traditions, but that is school not work. And the Europeans, Indians, etc. have, obviously similar testing, but again that is school.)

  6. @Shrutarshi Basu: I’m curious what Scott’s thoughts are on this, but a resource I continue to find useful is Ramit Sethi’s I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Stick with it past the scammy sounding title of the blog and check out some of his YouTube videos. Ramit has some great ideas on networking, specifically about how to be valuable to people who seem like they have everything.

    For instance, one idea I’ve used is when I ask for advice, I try to report back with how I use it. So many times in the past, I’ve asked for advice, received it, but then never reported back on how it worked out, never closing the loop. Now, as much as I can, I try to create detailed “testimonials” (for lack of a better word) for people who help me. That way, they get the satisfaction not only of giving advice that might be used someday but actually seeing the results in how their advice plays out.

    It seems like common sense once I get into it, but that comes from switching into more of a generous mindself, as Scott said.

    -Marshall

  7. *mindset, not mindself (whatever that is)

  8. Odai says:

    “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, by Dale Carnegie, taught me a lot on the subject of building relationships (not a huge fan of the word “networking”), and I’m still working on understanding the concepts in it.

    There’s also some good information in “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

  9. Rich says:

    Hi Scott,

    It sucks that the “it’s who you know” rule works so well in the real world. I’ve been an employee for almost 10 years now, and see this rule validated time and again (people in sales close to the bosses able to ask for bigger raises, shy IT people still with stagnant pay). To paraphrase the late Jim Rohn, maybe if we get our own planet, we can put out rules about what is fair and not, but on this planet we seem to be guests.

    Looking forward to your “Introvert’s Guide to Networking”.

  10. Great post. Social skills are one of the key determining factors in having success in life. If you care to observe people around you, friends, relatives, etc., people with great social skills (knowing lots of people, having lots of friends) tend to have higher income, generally happier and overall more successful than those who don’t. The only exceptions usually lie in two cases, either they have far below average knowledge and professional skills(such as manual laborers), or they have issues with life attitude and philosophy.

    Therefore, we often find people with good professional knowledge and skills, and also good overall life attitude, but aren’t successful yet, then it’s most likely the social skills that they lack or weak at.

  11. Isis masoud says:

    Shrutarashi basu-

    The value for networking isn’t only high for the corporate world, it’s also very high in the art & freelance world. I work in entertainment & although I have representation, every good job I’ve ever had came to me through my connections. Good relationships make work more fun. If I am rehearsing for a show or on set for 16 hours a day, I want to be surrounded by people who are talented & can get the job done, but also people who I want to spend time with. Surrounding yourself with great people who know how to nurture relationships produces better work especially in the creative world. Don’t underestimate the power of relationships. If you value people, they will value you, & you’ll find the return on your investment into others will be exponential.

    Relationships impact performance because they make you more accountable & they raise your social currency or your “high value” as scott would say. If a good friend recommends me for a job & I get hired, I want to do really well for myself, my friend, & the client because they have put their names out there & taken a chance on me.

    My father once said to me, “I am rich with the people I surround myself with, they give me more than money could ever buy”.

    He’s a 74 year old sailboat captain in Miami truly getting the most out of life. Incidentally, he is incredibly generous, high value, & knows everyone in town.

  12. poo yee says:

    wht if i always g etting ignored by other ppl?

  13. Matthew G says:

    Excellent article. Everyone suffers from the unique snowflake issue of networking. This manifest’s itself mostly in believing that they have some particular issue that makes them unable to gain a network.

    I didn’t begin to realize on a psychological level until I was a senior that “it’s who you know”. Skill alone isn’t enough to get a head and if pitted against each other I would wager that the human / network wins every time. This is often the reason why someone who has no idea what they are doing has a fantastic job. Although it’s troubling to believe personal skills matter more than raw technical skills, it is an unavoidable aspect of being human. The objective is to hone both skills, with perhaps an emphasis on the human element.

  14. Khuyen Bui says:

    I have always associated the word “connection” with “nepotism” (perhaps due to my background from a place where corruption level is high) previously. However, as I realized the same lesson that few people are going to care about you if you don’t have something for them (or at least a genuine desire to add value to them), “connection” becomes a lot more positive word. The world is about a network of people.

    This is one of the best posts i read from your blog, especially your #2 point, be Generous. It’s very encouraging and inspiring for starters to know that other more successful people do care about them, and this spirit will pass onto the starters.

    @Marshall: awesome practical tip. Thanks!

  15. Linda says:

    Hi Scott,

    Sometimes people might be reluctant to come out for coffee if we cold-email them and ask for advice, but they come out anyway maybe because they try to be polite. In that case, should we still follow up to tell them about the testimonials (and will they feel it’s a disturb to them?)

    Also, how frequently should we follow up, in addition to maybe sending greetings every Xmas?

    Thanks!

  16. anthonynlee says:

    I agree with this post almost entirely. My issue is that pesky #3. I am an introvert. Not only do I lack interest in meeting new people I also find it absolutely terrifying. Everyone always wants to say things like “get out of your comfort zone” or “networking is just a skill you need to get better at. Until you do it will be a little scary.” Well,to that I say BULLOCKS. I have done personal development long enough so I am familiar with working in the fringe of fear. I have faced my fear of heights, cold calling, flirting, dancing in public, and performing on stage. This has always seemed different. Any attempt to network has been unfruitful because it always feels, from both sides I’d imagine, like I have ulterior motives. I don’t like small talk. I don’t care about some stranger’s honor roll student. I’ve tried. But I just don’t.
    Because of this “who ya know” corporate culture I’ve always felt maybe I’m not a good person because I don’t care (cuz that’s what they teach you….”you gotta really CARE about people”).
    I care about people. I want to provide them with value. But I want to interact with them as little as possible. This coupled with my not having attended college has made attempting an economic shift quite challenging.
    I guess my point is I agree networking is a skill…..but not one absolutely anybody can learn with success. Just like neurosurgery, particle physics, flying, singing, basketball or prolific writing.

  17. I have a preferred argument for one of the complaints you cite:

    “To the prospective freelancer I’ll employ, this sounds unfair. After all, shouldn’t the job go to the person who is most qualified for the given price?”

    The answer to this question is YES (and, as you state, qualified encompasses more than technical proficiency). The error in the argument is that the person hiring always has incomplete information about who the most qualified person is – references from one’s network decrease the risk associated with the hire. If you’re qualified, having a network will make that level of qualification more obvious, and therefore easier to see and subsequently hire.

    The way the argument is framed makes it sounds like we hire friends/connections even though we know they’re less qualified, which is (almost always) not true. We hire friends/connections because we are more certain they’re qualified, even if there’s a small chance someone we don’t know could be more qualified.

  18. J says:

    Sadly, in my experience #2 only works if everyone plays by the rule. Otherwise you end up being that guy that everyone knows can help them, while not giving anything in return (most of the time).

    That’s a pretty bad position to put yourself in, because once you stop helping and start asking for help, most people turn away and even say you’re a jerk for not helping them.

  19. Mike says:

    sounds like a lot of self-fulfilling prophecy stuff to me. Sure, you’ve hired people that meet your standards because of the recs of your friends. But how many people that would have done an even BETTER job have you turned away because they aren’t in your network? There’s a name for that type of error, a Type II error. But since you will never learn of the work the people you didn’t hire would have done, your scheme seems to work just fine.

    I’m not saying you shouldn’t post about this. It IS the way the world works, and like it or not we all have to play the game. But you seem eager to go farther than that, to assert that not only is it the way it works but that its GOOD it works that way. Which is, as I’ve explained, a false belief.

  20. Scott Young says:

    Shrutarshi,

    I can’t comment on the cultural implications of networking since each culture is different and what is considered appropriate in one may be inappropriate in another. I think there is a considerable amount of dishonest nepotism in the world, but I don’t believe that substantiates the position that networking is intrinsically dishonest. Many types of networking are healthy.

    Relationships impact performance because soft skills–communication, trust, personality, impact the work that gets done. I’ve had far more partnerships fail due to interpersonal conflicts rather than technical incompetence.

    True, if I accept guest posts it contradicts my “no-guest post policy” but I was making a point–many opportunities don’t “exist” except for those with connections. That may be unfair, but it is reality.

    I don’t give endlessly, especially to people who don’t appreciate it or return it. But at the same time, I don’t keep score. A component of social skills is recognizing who is a good friend and who is a user, and it ultimately rests on judgment.

    Mike,

    I’ve hired quite a few people without recommendations and, on average, they tend to perform more poorly than those who come recommended. I agree there is a selection bias at work, but part of it is the difficulty of evaluating the soft skills of people who come through a formal process, which is what I alluded to here.

    J,

    There’s a difference between being generous and being a pushover. People will try to take advantage of you–that’s always true. You need to be generous, but also assertive in your value and that you won’t accept perpetually lopsided relationships.

    Barry,

    My point is that the potentially most-qualified person may *not* get the job if he didn’t come recommended. Unqualified people don’t get recommendations, but a qualified, recommended person may not be the most-qualified.

    anthonynlee,

    I only network with people I genuinely like and would want to be friends with. That makes it a lot easier since I don’t have ulterior motives if I actually like the person.

    Marshall,

    I’ve been a fan of Ramit since he started his blog. He’s a bit aggressive in his marketing, but the advice is solid.

    Linda,

    That’s why I try to meet a lot of people. Some won’t become great friends, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to reach out once or twice.

    -Scott

  21. ChristianKl says:

    When I reach out to someone, I try to research them carefully to figure out how I might be able to help them, and read for clues in our initial conversation. Maybe they can use advice, website traffic or would benefit from connecting with another friend of mine?

    From my perspective many people are in need of advice. That however doesn’t mean that they like getting advice from strangers. How do I recognize a situation where another person welcomes it if I give him advice?

    Website traffic is a nice strategy for you since you have a popular blog.

    When it comes to connecting one friend with another friend, how do you go about that? What the concrete process?

    How do you get better at recognizing how you can help others?

  22. Jerrie says:

    So true. It’s who you know makes sense because after all think about the jobs for nurses and teachers. They need references in order to get in. Without the references/all the knowledge in the world doesn’t do so much. One needs to build relationships and references.

    So it may seem unfair to be ignored for having no friends or being a loner. I guess one needs to somehow prove their worth.

    In friends we find treasure.

  23. Neil Traft says:

    To Shrutarshi, Brian, and others who complain that we may have nothing to offer those who are in a position to help us:

    I recently heard a great piece of advice, a personal motto of sorts:

    “Sweep the Dojo”

    What does it mean? It means that if we admire a great master of martial arts, and we wish to learn from them, it is true that we cannot offer to spar with them. We cannot offer to help them teach other martial arts students. But we can always offer to sweep the dojo.

    There is always *some* way for us to help everyone, if we dig deep enough, no matter how small. If there is a professor in another university whose work you are trying to understand, perhaps you can offer to be their copy editor in return for the privilege of gaining early access to their publications. If there is a clever entrepreneur you want as your mentor, maybe you can start by managing some of the tedious details of running a business that they don’t have time for.

    As you do menial work for them, you can observe them, get to know them, and begin to learn tidbits from them, while studying on your own in your free time. If they are worth having as a mentor, they will recognize your efforts and begin to give you more opportunities to learn.

    If they already have a graduate student or a secretary or whatnot to help them in that area, they will at least appreciate the effort and will already be much more open to your communications than they would have otherwise. They may agree to help you anyway.

  24. Another important aspect of networking is staying in touch and in the loop with what is going on in the lives of the people you are connected with. I make it a habit to share via email interesting articles and resources with people I have connected with before.

  25. Eric says:

    Hi Scott,

    I agree that spending more time networking may be good for someone as individual. Unfortunately, I’m not certain whether society as a whole always benefits.

    In particular, there has been research by Fred Luthans which showed that managers who were actually competent were promoted less often than managers who were much less competent, since the ‘incompetent yet successful’ managers spent their time hobnobbing with their colleagues and superiors instead of doing their job ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Luthans ). Everyone has a limited number of hours in his or her day, and a limited number of skills one can develop to great level. This is why politicians often seem so ignorant: they specialize in knowing people, not in knowing facts.

    So unfortunately, if someone has a large network, that person has of course some value, but you may still want to hire someone with a smaller network who has more actual skills. Top scientists, for example, are seldom great networkers, top-networking scientists are seldom very good at science. Generally, you can’t have both.

    In short, I agree that for a person as individual, the more networking one does, the better it is for getting jobs; it’s just that we as society tend to overvalue networkers, to our own detriment. So indeed you may pay people from your network more; but chances are that you are overpaying them; that someone knows and recommends them will often say more on whether they seem a pleasant person than whether they do the job correctly (which most employers can’t evaluate well anyway)

    Eric

  26. Michelle says:

    Great post! Networking doesn’t come naturally to everyone but it can be learnt!

    My tip is to find a regular setting where you can get to know people (a once a month event, sporting activity or hobby group) then you can develop confidence and find people with similar interests, which makes talking with people you don’t know much easier!!

  27. Vlad Dolezal says:

    So fancy this, Scott. A few weeks back, I’d been thinking about how much I’d been neglecting keeping up with other bloggers I care about.

    It’s not that I don’t care – I just never really made the habit of it, and it always slips my mind. Writing and reading books and working on my own blog somehow always seemed more immediate. So I decided to start a 30-day trial (guess who I got *that* idea from ;-) ) of spending an hour each workday on this.

    And on the third day of this trial I get around to checking on your blog, and see that your latest post is exactly about this topic.

    So, what I wanted to say is… Get out of my head!

  28. Scott Young says:

    Eric,

    The idea that there is a direct tradeoff between competence and connectedness strikes me as false, so I’d want to see some more solid evidence before I agree with it.

    In my experience, people with larger networks are generally *more* competent, because of the issue I raise in #1 (being higher value increases the amount of people who want to contact you). Although this would have many exceptions.

    -Scott

  29. […] It’s Who You Know—Scott H Young offers his thoughts on networking. […]

  30. […] and education hacker Scott H. Young breaks down the mental barrier we can sometimes have when we utter the words “It’s all who you know.” Typically, we use that […]

  31. […] “It’s Who You Know” « Scott H Young digg_skin = 'compact'; […]

  32. “I’ve learned that technical proficiency is only a small part of what makes a good candidate. Being trustworthy, timely and easy to communicate with are often more important, yet these are features difficult to ascertain from a portfolio.”

    Here is an alternative to the traditional portfolio or resume. It’s called the Human-Centered Resume:

    http://hindsightwrites.blogspot.com/2013/03/human-centered-resumes-are-way-of-future_2.html

    http://hindsightwrites.blogspot.com/2013/03/introducing-imaginator.html

    I think it’s brilliant! I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

  33. […] you try to say that your network of professional friends is important to your career, you get tons of angry socially maladroit […]

  34. […] you try to say that your network of professional friends is important to your career, you get tons of angry socially maladroit […]

  35. […] Young’s blog, Get More From Life, there is a very nice post on networking which implores us to Be High Value and Be Generous as a first step in our networking strategy. To receive help from others, we must first be helpful […]

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