What’s More Important: Who You Know or What You Know?

by Elizabeth on October 8, 2012 · 5 comments

Six years ago, I got a random phone call at my work desk. I was eight months in to my first job as a TV news producer, and I was miserable. So when the person on the other end of the line asked me to come interview for a job – a job for which I hadn’t even applied – I jumped at the chance. But I had a question: why did this person want to talk tome?

“Simple,” the man, whose name was Bernie, told me. “I used to work with your professor from grad school. When I mentioned I was hiring a producer, he sent me your resume.” I laughed, reminding him that I hadn’t even known there was an open position at his TV station. “Who cares?” he replied. “After all, it’s not what you know, it’swhoyou know.”

WHAT You Know

As a journalist, I thought I knew a lot. I knew how to operate a $17,000 TV-grade video camera; I knew how to edit the film that camera recorded into a coherent news story; I knew how to write, research, and present my work. I thought my skills would ultimately land me the type of job I sought, so I made sure to highlight them on the resume I sent to Bernie.

“Where are your references?” he asked me, the first words out of his mouth when I picked up the phone. I told him that since he already knew my favorite professor, that I assumed he had all the information he needed about me. “You sent me all this information on what you can do and what you know; I don’t care about that. I have people who canteach you that. I want to know who you know; I want to see if I know them too. They’ll tell me way more about how you’ll fit into my newsroom than a list of skills.”

Point taken. Within minutes, I’d emailed Bernie a list of five additional references; of those, he knew two of the five. When he officially offered me the job three weeks later, he reminded me of these connections. “I didn’t hire you because you could operate a camera,” he said. “I hired you because I trust the judgment of your references; after all, I’ve worked with them, too.”

Why Don’t Like To Admit It’s WHO We Know

Maybe I should have felt better for landing this job – it earned me a substantial raise and a ticket out of the one-horse town in which I was currently working – but I didn’t. Bernie’s words made me feel like I hadn’t earned the position; rather, I felt like the people I knew – those who had recommended me – had earned the job. Bernie had discounted my skills, the ones I’d worked for years to hone (and paid big bucks on my education to acquire). I felt like he hadn’t hired me, but my reputation based on the opinions of others.

I think that’s why so many people refuse to embrace the adage that it’s who you know, not what you know. Because when you acknowledge this truth, you’re largely taking your skills and accomplishments out of the equation. You’re admitting that your connections are more important than the things you’ve actually done. It’s a crushing blow to the ego.

Kicking The Ego To The Curb

In the years since Bernie hired me based largely on word of mouth, I’ve watched this type of situation happen again and again. I saw it happen when my husband got overlooked for a promotion to corporal, despite scoring the highest in his department on the promotion exam. Who got the job instead? A guy who went to elementary school with one of the supervising lieutenants. Some may call this nepotism, and in a way, it is; but at the same time, a job applicant’s personal skills – the way they tick – is more important to a boss than their skill set. Would you rather take a chance on someone with an impressive resume, but about whom you know nothing else? Or would you rather hire someone whom you know you can trust and respect, because you already know other people who trust and respect them?

This underlies the importance of building up your network – yes, your social network as well as your professional one. Just how important is your ability to connect with people on sites like Facebook? Consider a 2012 article in Forbes that suggests that people without an online profile may be more “suspicious” than those with Facebook accounts. Want more proof? A study from NC State University suggested that men with specialized work experience were 12 times more likely to be recruited to a new job through social contacts than by traditional methods.

Reader, what do YOU think is more important: who you know, or what you know? Why?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kim@Eyesonthedollar October 8, 2012 at 11:44 am

Obviously you need to have the skills or education for a position, but after that I think having the right connections goes a long way. If all applicants look similar on paper but you know someone from another arena or know someone who has work with the person, that goes into the selection. My husband got his first teaching job because my boss at the time knew the principal and put in a good word for him. I hired my current associate optometrist because he grew up in our town and and I’ve know him and his family for years. If someone can do the job and you know a bit about their character, that is a huge advantage. Is is so important to always be on your game in social situations, even if you aren’t looking for a job. You never know who might be watching.


2 shanendoah@the dog ate my wallet October 8, 2012 at 4:26 pm

I agree that a lot has to do with who you know, but I also think when we look at it just that way, we discount our actual skills. With the exception of landing a first job, it wouldn’t matter who I knew if they didn’t think I was capable and competent. The people I know wouldn’t give me a good reference to get the next big job if I wasn’t actually good at what I do.
So while the list of accomplishments I chose to write on a piece of paper may matter less than the names I put on that references sheet, those accomplishments still matter because they are the reason those people are going to recommend me.


3 krantcents October 8, 2012 at 5:07 pm

In certain industries, your story is true! It also extends to where you worked too. If you worked for any length of time at some of the best companies that says a lot about you. The reputation of the company and people you keep says a lot about you.


4 Christa October 9, 2012 at 6:27 pm

It helps to know someone in the trenches, for sure. I think this is true of every industry. I think it has a lot to do with the ease of finding a suitable applicant by word of mouth. Otherwise, the company hiring will be starting from scratch, and who knows if a “blind applicant” would work out? Congrats on the job!


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