One of my father’s favorite expressions was that it’s not what you know, but who you know that matters.  He typically pulled it out to refer to some type of perceived injustice involving nepotism or some other type of favor where the most qualified person wasn’t chosen for a position.  While I don’t fully agree with him based on this interpretation, it is definitely true that who you know is pretty important for success as a leader.

I talk with a lot of new managers who are very focused on increasing their expertise in their given discipline.  This isn’t a bad idea, but some of these folks focus on the technical aspects of their jobs to the exclusion of the human component.  I frequently encourage leaders to think hard about their “value add,”  that is, what is it that they do in their position that adds value to the business and especially, to their team.  While technical expertise; what they know, is certainly part of the answer, the much larger part is often who they know, or more accurately what connections they can make for themselves, their team members, and other associates.

A recent Gartner study concluded that of the 4 most common coaching approaches, managers who focus on connecting their employees with other resources had the biggest impact on performance.  A key success factor for the leaders was recognizing that in addition to having limited time themselves,  they didn’t always have the right expertise to support their employees effectively.  Learning to find meaningful connections for employees is a critical skill to becoming an effective coach:  It’s not what you know, but who you know.

It turns out that the importance of making connections isn’t just limited to coaching.  An onboarding study from the early 2000’s showed that for new hires, building strong networks of peers, mentors, and subject matter experts, was a strong predictor of both longer term success and job satisfaction.  For new managers, this may mean forming or re-forming relationships with their new peer groups: other managers, senior executives, and SME’s.  It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

The strength of your personal network can have a lot to do with your ability to add value as a leader for a number of reasons.  First, the more responsibility you have, the higher the likelihood you’ll need help to get your work done.  This might start as needing just the people on your team, but at some point, it will likely include experts and other individuals from other teams, divisions, or even outside the company.  Second, if you think about what your employees really need from you, it’s not that you always have the answer, or that you can show them how to do something.  Much of the time, what they really need is access to experts or executives outside the team.  Your ability to reach out to appropriate resources, or point employees toward someone who can help when they get stuck may likely have a lot more to do with their success than your technical ability.

This emphasis on making connections requires us as leaders to focus on building a strong network of meaningful relationships.  Give some thought to your own network as it relates to your work and the work of your team and consider the following:

  • Do you have relationships with the resources you and your team need to help you succeed?
  • Are you consistently casting yourself as the subject matter expert or do you have a “bench” of experts to whom you can turn?
  • Are you investing enough time trying to deeply understand the development needs of your team members so you can connect them with resources who can really help them?
  • Are you regularly spending time developing relationships with individuals who may be important to your team?

In the end it seems that my father was right, although arguably not exactly as he intended.  Apparently, it really is true that who you know matters and that “the older you get, the smarter your parents are.”