November 5, 2008

Poo on who you know

Filed under: Job Search

I’ve always contended that being well-connected isn’t what it’s purported to be. I discuss this briefly in Meet the right people. Lots of folks think that unless they have a big-time inside contact at a company, they’re better off applying for a job through a job board and the personnel department. After all, only a few decision-makers in a company really matter. Who wants to waste time with nobodies?

Poo on all that, says Duncan Watts, one of my favorite social scientists. I don’t much care for social scientists, and I think why I like Watts’ social research is that his Ph.D. is in theoretical and applied mathematics. But much of his work is in networks – how people connect with and influence one another. (Watts wrote the best book I know about networking, Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. But don’t expect lightweight tips. This book requires you to read carefully and think.)

So, how does this help you land your next job? Simple: You might have a big-time inside contact at your target company, or you might know a lowly programmer or marketing assistant. I think it’s better to have one or two credible grunts telling the boss that he ought to talk to you, than to have a vice president (of Human Resources? Gimme a break.) do it.

Watts re-did Stanley Milgram‘s famous “small world” experiment to show this effect. (We know this today as six degrees of separation.) Fast Company magazine reports on Watts’ work in its February 2008 edition (it’s an oldie-but-goodie). In 2001, Watts used a web site to recruit about 61,000 people, then asked them to ferry messages to 18 targets worldwide. Sure enough, he found that Milgram was right: The average length of the chain was roughly six links. But when he examined these pathways, he found that hubs — highly connected people – weren’t crucial. Sure, they existed. But only 5% of the e-mail messages passed through one of these superconnectors. The rest of the messages moved through society in much more democratic paths, zipping from one weakly connected individual to another, until they arrived at the target. Grunts – not big-time contacts – are the key to good networking.

Poo on who you know. What matters is that lots of good people know you. You don’t need a powerful headhunter, or the CEO of a company to recommend you to a hiring manager. Run-of-the-mill people are good sources of referrals that can pay off nicely. The more solid people that know you, the better. Which proves something I’ve said for a long time. If you want to find your next good job, go hang out with people who do the work you want to do. The more, the better.

One Comment on “Poo on who you know”
By Jill Walser
November 7, 2008 at 1:22 pm

Great article Nick! The “grunts” are also hungrier and, if they don’t already “owe” you because you bought them a beer last weekend while watching the game, they’re more likely to be motivated by HR’s referral bonus than a VP would be.

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