by Dan D. 8/4/16

I read a lot of career advice blogs and some business blogs. I do not have much formal education in business aside from a project management credential and the future value of my graduate degree in public service management (appearing on a resume near you, fall ~2019!).

That said, having read most of these blogs, I keep hearing about the value of “networking”. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. “If you don’t have a contact at the company when applying for a job, you’re better off throwing your application papers into a strong breeze”. Et cetera, ad nauseam.

The idea that networking—namely, developing contacts and relationships with professionals in the workplace who might someday help you in your career–should be your one stop shop for career success is fraught. It is certainly a useful strategy—I’ve seen plenty of examples where connections have helped people obtain positions or pick up work for their companies—but I’d wager it’s as full of failures as it is successes.

If you’re doubtful, have a look at a few examples from my professional experiences. I hesitate to call it a career because I’ve made a few industry changes over the years and believe that my “career” is yet to begin as such (if, that is, we define “career” as time spent working on one particular thing for one specific industry):

  • As my undergraduate studies were wrapping up, I connected with a NPR radio producer while traveling abroad. At the time, I had been working as a DJ/producer at my campus station for about 3 years. I loved working in radio and wanted to make a vocation out of it. I knew my way around a control board, had basic proficiency with audio editing software, and was comfortable holding my own on-air. When it came time to apply for jobs, I asked my contact if she could put in a good word for me at WNYC, the station closest to where I’d be post-graduation. Mind you, I wasn’t looking to be a senior producer for Leonard Lopate or anything; I’d have been happy with a part-time board operator job, hell – even a desk job filing paperwork for the station would have been helpful. My contact’s feedback? “Oh, I don’t think your boy has enough experience for us. Tell him to get more experience somewhere else”. Huh? 3 years of production experience in a small Northeast market isn’t enough for a back-end, low-level job at an NPR station? Now, I get that radio is kinda like that…you trade small-market experience to work your way up…internships and all that fun stuff…nonetheless…I was summarily dismissed outright for any and all jobs there simply because some guy felt a certain way after looking at some words I arranged on a document? Didn’t even think “gee, this kid is interested in radio, has a little bit of experience, and knows one of my valued contacts…maybe I could throw him a bone and let him clean our toilets for $8 an hour?”
  • A few years later, I was connected with a job at a school in New York via a client of my dad’s business who had taken an interest in me. We held a short interview so she could gain an understanding of my background to pitch me to her co-worker. She then recommended I submit my credentials to the manager in charge of hiring; I did, I interviewed, I felt it went pretty well. Didn’t get the job. Nothing negative in the feedback, they just went with someone else.
  • About three years after the previous story took place, I noticed that a position opened at a non-profit in the city I was moving to at the time. I had three things going for me here: I had previously worked for a different branch of the same organization as an AmeriCorps member, I had regularly volunteered at another affiliate following the completion of my term, and a close friend knew the executive director of this particular branch. She contacted the ED, gave me a generous introduction, I sent my resume along, and aside from a polite “we’ll get back to you” e-mail, I heard nothing.

Now, look, some of you fine folks wearing suits in your thumbnail images adorned with bylines far more accomplished than mine will respond to these anecdotes with “well, maybe these people gave you a bad reference”. Not so, as I a) was copied on two of the e-mail chains and saw everything in the content of the pitch and b) received positive (or at least not negative) feedback from the recommender in the third scenario.

Let’s contrast these examples with experiences I’ve had applying for jobs out of the blue:

  • I was hired for arguably my most fulfilling position—volunteer construction site leader for a nonprofit in New Orleans—sight unseen without any experience in construction. As far as I can tell, the hiring manager, a complete stranger to me at the time who would go on to be one of the best supervisors I’ve had the pleasure of working for, took a chance on me. I credit that position with a several-year-long stint in the building biz, a journey that culminated in a management gig that, while it was the most challenging position I’ve held professionally, taught me innumerable lessons about how to manage people, processes, and expectations.
  • When my management gig was wrapping up, I mused that accounting seemed like a good field to transition in to. The construction projects I’d worked on up to that point had taken place in the disaster recovery realm – rebuilding homes for hurricane victims – which is an exhausting field to work in that had burned me out. Mind you, I had no formal accounting experience to speak of—the closest transferable skills I had were tool inventorying, using Excel to build databases, and office administrative experience—but I indicated to my temp agency that I was interested in an entry-level accounting position, and they hooked me up. In that position, I was able to learn how to use QuickBooks and was taught several basic accounting principles. I also gained valuable insight into the inner workings of a public-relations agency, but that’s a story for another time.
  • Nearly a year later, having relocated to my current city, I was able to build on that experience (along with a few temp gigs I had in the interim) to obtain a part-time job as an accounting assistant. I went into the interview not knowing a soul at the organization and having no background in the particular vertical they operated in in the non-profit world. I was offered the job, and six months later it became a full-time gig with added responsibilities, excellent pay/benefits, and a great work environment. This was another example of a complete stranger taking a chance on me, a chance that rewarded both parties with an excellent working relationship.

Now you can argue that the accounting position was obtained via my temp agency hooking me up; an informed contact pitching me to a company with a hiring need. I would, however, make the crucial distinction between a contact obtained via networking helping connect me to a job and someone who is essentially in a supervisory role working to obtain a position for me as part of their duty as a professional recruiter. Take into consideration this, too – I had far less experience as an accountant prior to getting that gig than I did as a radio producer years before, when my contact tried to help me get in at WNYC – and I succeeded and built a nice professional path out of it.

Look, I’m not here to say networking doesn’t work. It is a perfectly viable way to make connections with people who may help you with your career. It should, however, be viewed as one of the many components that can help you get where you want to be professionally. I’d caution you to ignore any advice that demands you NETWORK NOW or DIE, because the person writing that is probably some hack copywriter trying to clickbait their way into a few bucks (source: am one, can confirm this happens).

Once in a while, you get lucky—you certainly shouldn’t rely on luck as your primary job-search tool, either, but luck and chance play a far more important role in hiring than we often acknowledge.