This post was originally published on LinkedIn, April 21, 2014.
How many times have you heard someone say, “It’s all who you know” within the context of getting ahead in your career? Probably a lot.
Interestingly, just the opposite is true. It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.
Thought experiment: Consider the social networks of celebrities, national politicians, or CEOs. Obviously there’s a small number of people who they “know,” meaning that they know them by name and remember something about them and wouldn’t mind a conversation with them. However, most their power in society is derived from the fact that a preponderance of strangers know them. That’s why they can get tickets to a sold-out show, or a million Instagram followers, or a private audience with the President to discuss their new charitable initiative.
Now consider the people you “know” (or think you know). Common scenario: You got someone’s business card at an event nine months ago and sent them a follow-up email about how nice it was to have met them. Now, there’s something you want from them – an introduction related to an advertised job, their attendance at an event you’re planning, a donation to your spouse’s charity. If you didn’t make a memorable impression when you met them or subsequently, the fact that you “know them” means nearly nothing. What matters is if they “know you” – in other words, that they remember you and think something positive about you that motivates them to respond to a call-to-action.
Confession: I meet lots of people who don’t make a memorable impression on me. It’s not atypical for me tobecome a victim of the cocktail party scenario where they approach me a year later with a huge “Hi!!” and I look at them with a blank stare. Often, the story is like the above – they met me after a talk I gave at a conference two years ago and we connected on LinkedIn and they read my writing but we haven’t had a conversation nor have I heard anything about them since. It sounds harsh, but I can only keep track of so many people; They know me, but I don’t know them.
Because people can only keep track of the activities of about one hundred people who are currently important to them, business networking is actually far more ruthless than you’ve probably been led to believe. If you can’t break into your target’s “Top 100 List” within a reasonably short amount of time, they have no bandwidth to “know you” and thus can’t really be of any use to you. You may as well have not met them in the first place.
Why do some (non-celebrity) people tend to break into lots of personal Top 100 Lists and others don’t? I previously wrote that your brand is the sentence people say about you behind your back. Simply put, some people’s sentences are more memorable and meaningful than others. Contrast, for example, “Bob’s in marketing, I think he works for a big company in New York” and “John’s one of the most creative marketing execs to come out of New York in the last decade.” If there’s truth in the latter statement, it follows that over time John is more likely to “be known” by many more people than poor ambiguous Bob.
Knowing people doesn’t scale, but being known to people scales infinitely. Therefore, a good strategy for meaningfully expanding your professional network should include activities that grow the number of people who know you (There are also network effects at play here: the more people who know you, the more conversations there are about you, and the more people hear about you, the more people know you, ad infinitum). Such activities might include public speaking, guest writing for popular blogs in your specialty area, or appearing in a television interview. Or it might be an invention that you launch on Kickstarter to much acclaim, or something else physical that you create which garners attention. You should also give careful consideration to the “narrative on the street” about you: What is that key detail that sets you apart from so many others?
It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.