Examining the Good, Bad and Ugly Side of Who You Know

UntitledIt’s not what you know; it’s who you know. Before I was old enough to hold a job or understand the meaning of that statement, I heard it lobbed around often enough to be a team sport. And the ball remains in play.

A frustrated acquaintance recently said to me, “Someone can be as dumb as a doornail and get placed into a prominent position, or as smart as Einstein and be unemployed because he or she lacks the connections that Doornail has.”

I know numerous people who will attest to the fact that when it comes to employment, you don’t necessarily need skill, talent or brains to land a good job; not if you have connections. This is not to imply that education, abilities, and knowledge are unimportant. In fact, those qualities are essential for people who don’t “know someone.” But this post is not about folks who get what they want by going through the standard process. It’s about the advantage of knowing someone with pull, someone who can open doors for you; someone who can help you skip the usual process and get what you want.

If there is any place in the world where the maxim holds true, it’s in the Nation’s Capital where power-players rule. Take a walk along K Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, or any place in the city’s business district and the smell of nepotism and cronyism is stronger than rotting fish. But the who-you-know principle is not only applicable to powerbrokers and political bigwigs; it can work for anyone who knows the right people.

When I was a child, on a few occasions my dad took me to see the Washington Senator’s baseball team play at Griffith Stadium. Back then, it was easier for a poor black person to score big in the illegal numbers racket than to get tickets to a sporting event at the stadium. Nevertheless, dad occasionally got tickets to the ballgames from his brother, Al, who received them from his then boss, who owned a string of parking lots in the city. Point – dad knew someone who knew someone.

Then there was the time, as a young adult, when I was hired to work as a secretary/receptionist, in a small office with one other woman. I will call her Angela. Perhaps because we were very close in age after she hired me, Angela and I became fast friends, and I soon became her confidant. She told me that she used to be the secretary for the man who was president of the organization where we were employed. Let’s call him Mr. Doe. When the company, headquartered in another city, opened a branch office in DC, Mr. Doe placed Angela in the position of vice president and office manager of the new office.

During the first several months that I worked there, I watched Angela struggling (some would call it  ‘fronting’) during meetings and fretting afterward.  She would (figuratively) cry on my shoulder and saying how inept she felt when interacting with the more knowledgeable executives from other firms. She may have also cried on the shoulder of her former boss because eventually, Mr. Doe hired another person (another vice president who I will call Julie). I think Mr. Doe’s plan and that of other officials at headquarters was that Julie would serve as a buffer for Angela while she learned the specifics of the industry.

It soon became evident that Julie knew her job very well, too well. Clients began praising Julie to Angela, Mr. Doe and others at the firm. Unbeknownst to Julie, the more accolades she received the more insecure it made Angela feel.

Angela’s obvious envy of Julie led her to begin concocting lies that resulted in Julie’s firing within the year. This is not hearsay, I watched the drama unfold and to this day regret that I did not speak up for Julie for fear of losing my job. That’s water under the bridge now; but being older and wiser today, if I saw Julie or anyone else getting thrown under the bus, I would speak up on their behalf.

Angela was hired for a job for which she had no qualifications by someone who pulled strings to get her in that spot. Had she been required to follow procedure and apply for the VP position like other applicants, most likely her lack of credentials and experience would have prevented her from jumping directly from a secretarial position to VP.

Knowing the right people can not only give you access to jobs, high-demand tickets to concerts and sporting events, it may also get you access to covetable social functions. Keep in mind, if you know the right people, and you lack the chutzpa of the Salahis (The husband and wife gatecrashed a White House dinner in 2009, despite not being on the official guest list.), with the right connections, you may get to socialize with high profile personalities at an event to which you weren’t officially invited.

One day, a few years after I had left the job mentioned above, an associate gave me a ticket to a $500 a plate fundraiser luncheon that was taking place at one of DC’s finest hotels. You read it right — $500 a plate. My benefactor, a lawyer, and smart businesswoman was married to a prominent man in local government. While offering me the ticket, she told me that she would not be able to attend the luncheon because an important meeting had been scheduled after she purchased the ticket, and she needed to be at that meeting. When she sensed my hesitancy to accept the gift, she said, “It’s an excellent networking opportunity for an upward mobile young woman.” I accepted the ticket and attended the luncheon.

Sometimes, I think that God assigned the Guardian Angel of Opportunity to look after me because throughout my lifetime I’ve been fortunate to meet many people –prominent and ordinary — with connections who have helped me along the way.

In an excellent article published in Psychology Today, Dr. Fredric Neuman wrote, “I like to think that competence is the most important determinant of professional success.” I agree with Dr. Neuman, but knowing people or knowing people who know people is an asset too.

3 responses to “Examining the Good, Bad and Ugly Side of Who You Know”

  1. Velda L. Holmes

    Indeed, knowing the “right” people makes your climb easier but agreed that without knowing something about where you want to end up will derail your rapid climb. It also makes you a target for those your pass on your way up whose arrows are aimed straight at you. Whether that arrow is aimed at your head or your back, it is aimed none the less. The issue is to prepare our young to recognize this early so they are not dishearten when they come across this on their way to the top. Also, it bears saying, be kind to everyone because you never know who you meet on this road of life. It might be your connection!

  2. Kyle M Brown

    Great piece. I read it twice. I certainly side with skill and ability being the measure of appointments but that often is not the case.

    The DMV culture is a good example of that.

    I also won’t pretend that relationships have not been valuable to me.

    However I think this is one of those topics of which many will remain silent.

    I’d say it takes both to be successful and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

    However advancing soley on who you know is not a good thing for anyone.

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