For Your Career, It’s Not What You Know – It’s Who You Know

My very first job in HR was based on what I knew. Every other job offer after that was because of who I knew.

The rules about getting ahead at work haven’t changed. According to a survey from Right Management, 44% of employees believe the key to their success lies in “who you know”. Not far behind was job performance (39%).

career, job, managers, goals, career goals, promotions, HR, human resources, pay, development

I did find it sad and disappointing that 13% said no one ever explained what it takes to be successful. Anyone out there who doesn’t know the company criteria for promotions, transfers, performance appraisals and pay increases should ask their boss to explain it. If your boss doesn’t know or can’t answer, ask human resources. And if HR doesn’t know or can’t answer…well, you’ve got bigger questions to ask yourself about your long-term career plans.

This survey reminds us of the importance in setting career goals and communicating them.

Know where you want your career to be 1,3, and 5 years from now. You might not have a specific job title in mind but you should be able to communicate the kinds of projects you want to work on. While some managers only ask these types of questions during the annual performance appraisal discussion, it’s possible the question can get asked at any time.

I have to share this story with you. Years ago, I worked for a company experiencing a huge amount of growth. They had a long list of open positions and decided to hold a job fair. They asked me to fly up to the corporate offices and help out with the job fair. After the event was over, my boss asked me my opinion of the job fair and I offered some observations and a few suggestions. My boss said she liked my suggestions and would incorporate them into the next event.

Couple weeks later, my boss asked me to attend another job fair at the corporate offices. When she picked me up at the airport, she started talking about autumn and how pretty it was this time of year (she wasn’t one for small talk). I went home and told Mr. Bartender – we’re gonna get asked to relocate. Let’s figure out our answer. And sure enough, one week later we’re talking relocation.

Build a rapport with people who can influence your career. This isn’t just your manager. It might be colleagues, staff, human resources, etc. Know who the players are. They are paying attention to everything you do or say. As a human resources director, managers often asked me about my working relationship with people they were considering for promotion. They wanted to know how a person being considered for promotion was viewed at every level of the organization.

Mr. Bartender tells the story of the first time he attended a senior leadership meeting. The president spent much of the meeting talking about a line employee’s shenanigans. Don’t think people notice what you do?!

Communicate your career goals. Managers will have ideas about the direction they would like your career to go. You want to be able to communicate your goals. Especially if they’re not the same as your manager’s.

Another story – I once worked for someone who I thought I had a great rapport. I thought he knew what I wanted out of my career. The day came when I gave my resignation. A move I thought he expected. He said to me, “Sharlyn, I had such plans for you.” I’m thinking – ?!?! The exchange made me realize that neither of us had done a good job of communicating. Don’t make assumptions that everyone knows what you want and everyone sees all the hard work you do.

As more companies look for employees to take an active role in their own professional development, they will also want to have regular conversations about career management. “Let me get back to you on that.” isn’t a good reply. Always be prepared to talk at a high level about what you want out of your career.

Image courtesy of HR Bartender


  1. says

    Building and maintaining your network is another thing that’ll help a lot. Although I’ve heard ‘Never eat alone’ isn’t a very good read, the key point is very valid, consistently dining with people in my professional network has paid off for me over the years.

  2. says

    Advancing in your career is very much based on building relationships with your peers and bosses alike. It’s not just HR and management who can influence your career…it’s everyone you interact with on a daily basis. Like you said above, managers want to know how a person being considered for promotion is viewed at every level of the organization.

    If you’re serious about your career, it’s important to find a mentor and develop a working relationship with him/her. Look for someone in your organization who you wish to emulate…there’s your starting point. I wrote a blog post about my insights on professional relationships if you want to read further:

  3. says

    Great post as always. I loved hearing your stories of creating an influential network at work and communicating about career goals.

    I think most of the time people fail to communicate what they want in their career and just assume that they and their managers are in the same page. Informing your manager about what you love to do will help both in getting the job done better. You will enjoy doing your job and the manager will be happy with your performance.

    If it is time for a promotion and if you feel that you have done a remarkable performance through out your service with the company, tell your manager that your are ready to take higher responsibilities. Rather than expecting him to come to you when time comes.

    Just want to share with you my writings on creating internal sphere of influence at work.

    Thank you.
    Nisha raghavan (@TheHrbuddy) recently posted..How did I handle Culture Shock

  4. says

    @Carolyn – Thanks for commenting!

    @Duncan – Thanks for the comment. I enjoyed “Never Eat Alone” for the reason you mentioned. Whether it’s grabbing a cup of coffee or a business dinner, those connections are valuable.

    @Tom – Thanks for sharing. I agree that mentors can be valuable in career development.

    @Nisha – Love the ‘spheres of influence’ concept. Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. says

    Great anecdotes for continuing your professional development via current employers. It’s easy for people to shy away from holding these types of conversations with their employers. But like you suggested, if they don’t have your best interest at heart, you might want to reconsider your current situation.

  6. says

    @Rob – Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately, we don’t spend a lot of time educating people on how to have these kinds of conversations. So I think you’re right – people tend to just steer clear of them.