Monday, March 29, 2010

It's Not Who You Know Or What You Know . . .

I was chatting with a nice college senior a couple of days ago. We were discussing his future in industrial engineering when he said, "It's not what you know, it's who you know, right?"

I hadn't heard that sentence or thought about it since college. So I was intrigued when I realized that I strongly disagreed with it.

Knowing people is certainly helpful. I found my first job in China through an old contact, and several of my interesting internships were sourced through friends of friends and family. So I must agree, who you know is important.

However, who you know is useless if you can't produce.

I worked with a company that hired several people based solely on their connections. Those people never worked out. In fact, it was so bad that we gave up hiring those types. Instead we hired semi-connected people who also had a strong track-record of achieving results in our industry. Those people generally worked out brilliantly.

"Who you know" vs. "what you know" forms a continuum. It's not a binary choice. If you're a salesperson selling a product that buyers understand, who you know is usually more important than what you know. If you're an ultra-specialized researcher developing new pharmaceuticals, what you know is more important than who you know.

It's not who you know or what you know. It's achieving the right mix of both for the job that you're doing.