“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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  • Alfred

    “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.”

    this is both basic economics and public admission of bias, yes.

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