Years ago, three times per week, I’d trek to a Meetup to endure conversations over beer I wasn’t drinking about technologies I wasn’t using.
I did it because a thousand people told me:
“It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”
I have two problems with that adage.
1. “It’s not what you know”: False, for me. Maybe this is true for pale people with beards and flannels because folks assume they know what they’re doing. I don’t “look like an engineer,” so I have to prove myself like nine times over.
2. “It’s who you know”: Yes, it helps to have connections to people in charge of distributing opportunities. However, the word “know” gets a loose definition in networking praxis.
What people interpret “know” to mean: To possess a person’s name, email address, and maybe a single anecdote to remind them of who you are (example: “You and I met at X meetup and had a fascinating conversation about [thing]”)
What “know” means to me: To have fostered a relationship and established trust.
Duh, Chelsea! That trust is established because “good” networking is about helping other people, not getting stuff from them.
I’ve heard this, too. Again, great in theory, but gets misinterpreted in networking praxis.
I can’t tell you how many times I have received e-mails from complete strangers, or people I’ve met one time (perhaps at a Meetup, where we had a “fascinating conversation about [thing]”), with some line like “Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help you!”
You know who is most likely to need this person’s help? Someone with less experience and institutional power than they have. But they’re not sending this email to those people; they’re sending it to me. They want to be on my good side when the time comes that they want something from me: usually a good word with a friend of mine who is evaluating them for something, or else an introduction to someone with more (or different) institutional power than I have.
And look: I love to help. But I’m not going to do it by forcing my friends into conversations with random strangers, because that is a great way to tank my relationships.
If I’m going to make a connection like this, I’m going to ask for my friend’s consent first. But even then, in an introduction or reference, I am loaning the requester my reputation. I am implicitly saying “Friend, I do not think it would be a waste of your time to talk to this person who requested an intro to you.” I am loaning out my social capital with this friend to the requester. And I don’t do that lightly.
Introductions and references are favors that happen in the presence of trust.
I don’t go to someone I don’t know, who doesn’t know my work, and ask them to give me these things. This is because I know that, in such an intro, I would be borrowing their reputation. Another person is vouching for me. Therefore if I don’t do a good job, it could reflect poorly on them.
This is also why I don’t love it when complete strangers approach me and ask me to advocate for them to get something when I have never seen their work. They want to borrow my reputation—something I worked hard to build—when I have no evidence that they will treat it with care.
For this reason, when I ask others for help, it’s usually mentorship. I ask them to help me get better at things, and I do my best to demonstrate receptiveness to feedback and eagerness to improve. When these folks are impressed with my work, they know that their hard-earned reputation will be safe with me if they recommend me for something later.
Do I think it’s OK to ask folks to introduce you to other people or recommend you for raises, promotions, gigs, and other opportunities? Yes! But not by “finding connections” in the wild and asking them to loan you their credibility when they barely know you. Instead, when I need to lean on my network for something, I ask myself a series of questions:
- What am I trying to do?
- Out of the people with whom I have an established relationship, whose reputation might be able to help me do this?
- Out of those people, which ones would be excited about the return they would get on loaning me their reputation?
Those are the people I reach out to when I need something. People for whom helping me would make their reputation stronger, and they know it.
When there’s mutual trust, it’s no longer about who is helping whom, because both people benefit from whatever is happening.
If I ask Person A for an intro to Person B and I end up doing amazing work for Person B, then Person B will be grateful to Person A for the introduction. Person B might value Person A’s input based on the experience and offer A more opportunities to make recommendations. I have succeeded, not only in providing quality work, but in strengthening the relationship between A and B. Everybody benefits.
This is what the descriptor win-win purports to mean, but I witness brazen careerists using it to describe situations that are not this. It’s not “You do X for me, then later I do Y for you, and so it’s tit for tat, and we both win.” Rather, it’s “You do X for me, and that’s good for both of us. Maybe later I’ll do Y for you, but it’s independent of X, because X was good for both of us. I don’t ‘owe you’ for X and you don’t ‘owe me’ for Y, because X and Y independently of each other both make us better off.”
By all means, build connections.
But recognize the importance of trust. Networks function best when we invest in the trust-building part. That’s at least as important as the number-of-connections part.
And when someone helps out, we owe it to ourselves and to them to follow through.
If you liked this piece, you might also like:
The Remote Work Category (which also discusses reputation management)
This post on contributing to open source software (many OS teams are distributed)
Michael Lopp’s book on managing humans (or, if you don’t have time for that, my blog post on the book)