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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Who Knows You?

Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons,

There’s an old adage out there: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” I suppose the fact that this adage has been around for so long lends some credence to its applicability to life, but I’m not terribly fond of it. Maybe it’s because I’m an engineer by training and I’m proud of all that I know. Maybe it’s just because I’m simply too proud! Or maybe it’s because this adage is missing something; maybe it’s focused too much on you; maybe it’s missing the influence of the rest of the world! I propose this adage be amended to become the following: “It’s not what you know; it’s who knows that you know that you know things, you know?” Okay, maybe that doesn’t flow very well. Let me try this again. How about: “It’s not what you know, it’s who knows you.” Does that flow better? Good.

(An aside: As I write this, it amazes me that non-native speakers can learn to speak English. Knife is pronounced nife; knew is pronounced new; but know isn’t pronounced now, it’s nough. Why? Now that I don’t knough!)

Okay, back to business. When I first graduated from college as a Chemical Engineer, I did what the rest of my classmates did: I lined up for interviews and prayed that someone would give me a job! That’s when that old adage really started cropping up in my life, and back then, it really did seem true. However, since hindsight is 20/20 and I now have some perspective, I conjecture that it really doesn’t matter who I know. Think about it this way: I know Carson Palmer, the Heisman Trophy winning quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals. We went to high school together. I saw him practically every day and even met him a couple times when I was a Senior and he was our superstar Junior quarterback. Now, could it be said that Carson Palmer knows me? No, not really. So, do you think it’s worth a hill of beans that I know Carson Palmer? No, not really. It’s all about relationship, and there can’t be a relationship if the other party doesn’t know you.

I think this is especially true in business. A business’s success (or lack thereof) can be largely attributed to its ability (or inability) to create and maintain healthy relationships. Let’s start back with those interviews I talked about earlier. The old adage says that I have to know someone at the hiring company just to get an interview. Even if that were so, it’s not the interview I was after; I was after the job! The real opportunity came when the interviewer talked with me and got to know me. It’s only when the interviewer knows enough about me that he can make the recommendation to hire me. On the other side of the same coin, high-caliber employees may not want to sign with a company if they don’t know anything about the company. See, it’s all about relationship. A company won’t hire me if they don’t know me, and I won’t sign with a company if I don’t know them. It’s as simple as that.

Fortunately for many HR departments, hiring employees isn’t the only thing most companies do. They also have to abuse those employees, er, I mean maintain the relationships with those employees. Sorry, Freudian slip. Anyhow, if morale is down and employees start saying of the company, “we just don’t feel like we know you anymore,” then all sorts of nasty things can happen, not the least of which is low productivity. To make matters even more difficult, businesses have many other relationships they need to create and maintain.

Relationships with customers are critical and can take many forms, but frequently the embodiment of these relationships is the company’s brand. Brand management is like dating: showing off your good attributes while covering up the not-so-good attributes. Even if a company knows everything about its customers and creates exactly the products they want, those products aren’t worth much if customers think the company is creepy.

Relationships with vendors are also critical, even if vendors sometimes take a back seat. Vendors may not want to sell to a company with a low credit rating and I can’t imagine a supplier partnership working out too well if it isn’t based on a solid relationship. It’s like meeting someone in Las Vegas and getting hitched; most of those marriages don’t survive past the honeymoon. Except in business there aren’t any annulments, just divorce proceedings.

Relationships with shareholders and stakeholders are an even bigger ball of yarn, but I’ll spare you that tangled mess for the time being. Let’s just say that shareholders and stakeholders are like parents in business, and as we all know, if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!

In the end, even if you completely disagree with me and you know with certainty that I’m wrong – that it’s who you know that counts and not who knows you – at least I can take solace in something: it’s not what you know …

Nate Barber is Vice-President of Barber and Barber Associates, Inc. and is a student in the Executive MBA program at UTSA. You can reach him at or (210) 782-8912 for more business insights.

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