“It’s All About Who You Know:” Is the Old Adage Right?

FT Contributor
A crowd of professionals talking during a networking event, while two of them stand out in front talking to each other.
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There’s an old saying that it’s not what you know, but who you know when it comes to landing a great job or getting new opportunities to move up the career ladder. This isn’t to say that your skills and knowledge aren’t important. However, there is evidence that having good contacts will help you get jobs or projects you might not have earned otherwise — or at least, you would have had to work much harder for them.

Multiple studies have looked at how people get jobs, and most reach the same conclusion: Networking is the key to getting a job. Although specific results vary by study, a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Yale University found that 70% of jobs are filled via networking. This includes unadvertised positions, positions for which companies are hiring internally, and referrals for advertised positions.

Although some jobs are filled via postings — 15% are, according to CareerXroads — it appears that the traditional method of applying with a resume and cover letter isn’t always enough to impress a recruiter or hiring manager. Without the insight that a personal referral from someone familiar with your work provides, it’s harder to stand out.  

It Depends on Your Network

There’s no doubt that networking can help your career — in some cases it is all about who you know — but many people go about it all wrong. The thing about networking is size doesn’t matter. Having an expansive network of contacts across industries isn’t a bad thing, but if you don’t have solid relationships with the right people in the right industry, it’s probably not going to help you that much.

In other words, connecting with people you don’t know on LinkedIn just to grow your network, or attending events and doing little more than exchanging business cards is usually a waste of time.

That’s because you need referrals to find a job via networking. Hiring managers are more likely to hire someone who is referred by a trusted source rather than an online applicant. In fact, according to one study, employers hire one in 16 employee-referred candidates, compared to one in 100 candidates who apply online.

But referrals only come when you have a relationship with someone. An employee won’t refer you to the hiring team in their company if they don’t really know you and can’t vouch for your skills. Ask yourself: of all of the contacts you have in your network, online on sites like LinkedIn and in “real life,” how many of them actually have enough knowledge of your abilities to make a solid recommendation for you? And, of all of those contacts, how many actually work in your industry, or for companies that you want to work for?

Therefore, when you think about expanding your network, you need to be strategic and focus on quality over quantity. You want to connect with individuals who you feel comfortable talking with, and who can provide you with valuable insights. In short, you want real relationships with your contacts — not just a name.

How to Expand Your Network

Building your network takes work. It involves more than simply sending requests to connect on social media and then letting the connection languish. To benefit from networking, you need to put yourself out there and let people get to know you. That way, when the right opportunities arise, you are the first person who comes to mind.

Reach Out

It will be impossible to grow your network if you stay in your comfort zone and only interact with people you already know and feel comfortable with, or only communicate online. You have to put yourself out there and meet new people, even if it feels a bit awkward and uncomfortable at first.

Talking with your colleagues and using social media are important, but you need to attend events and actively engage with others in person. When you attend events, don’t try to work the room and meet as many people as possible. Instead, set a goal to make real connections with a handful of people.

Remember, making a real connection with one valuable contact is better than leaving with a pile of business cards for people you hardly remember. Also, don’t attempt to attend every networking event you can find. Zero in on the organizations that are most relevant to your goals, and show up regularly. You’ll become more familar to the other attendees, and will be able to establish your reputation with the right people.

Build Relationships

Networks are built on relationships. Again, others will only refer you if they are familiar with your work and skills, so you need to focus on building the relationship. This means reaching out on a regular basis to check in, and not just when you need something.

Get together for coffee or lunch every so often, share relevant articles, or introduce your contact to other people in your network who might be good for them to know. If you can, offer insight or assistance with a tricky issue or project they are working on. The best networking relationships are mutually beneficial, so make sure you’re holding up your end of the connection.

State Your Goals

Unless your contacts know what you’re hoping to accomplish, it will be all but impossible for them to connect you with relevant opportunities. As you establish your relationships, make it clear where you want to go in your career and the goals you’ve set for yourself. For instance, if you want to own your own business, let people know about it. This way, when your contacts see an opportunity that might be a good fit, such as a new funding source, they will reach out to you.

Make Inquiries

Finally, when you set goals for yourself, don’t be afraid to consult your network and inquire about insights or assistance. Whether you are looking for a new job, want insight into starting a side hustle, need advice about career development, or anything else related to your career, your network might have some connections or information that will help. You’ll never know unless you ask, so don’t hesitate to reach out. Just remember that relationships need to be reciprocal, and you should return the favor when you can help others.

What You Know Is Still Important

Although your network and “who you know” is vital to your career, at the end of the day what you know is still important.

If you expect people to recommend you for your skills, you have to be able to follow through and deliver on what was promised. Otherwise, you risk harming that relationship.

You need to be authentic in all of your networking activities, and never base your relationships on lies, half-truths, or who you think someone wants to meet. Stay genuine and honest, and remember that when you talk the talk, you have to walk the walk.

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