There are few older adages in business than the oft-cited notion that “It’s not what you know. It’s who you know that matters.” The underlying premise here is that the strength of someone’s personal network- both the extent of that network and the caliber or clout of the people in it – will trump the strength of someone’s education, experience, and skills.

The hiring practices of companies like Google suggest otherwise. Without an Ivy League (or something close to it) degree on your resume and the smarts to answer a Murderer’s Row of technical interview questions, you have a better chance of selling used cars for your career than you do of landing a choice job at Google or other engineering-centric companies – regardless of who you know.

But is Google the exception or the norm? Does intellect beat rolodex? What do the majority of people think? We thought we’d take a look at the CivicScience InsightStore™ to see what we could learn.

Since the fall of 2013, we’ve surveyed 17,116 U.S. adults– and the numbers are fairly split on this question:

In success, is it who you know or what you know?

Still, the slight majority (54%) leans toward “Who you know” as the biggest driver of personal success. But what do we see when we dig a little deeper?

Older people are more likely to value “What You Know.” 51% of respondents aged 55-64 and 59% of people aged 65 or older place a higher emphasis on individual knowledge and experience. Conversely, people in the throes of their professional career lean more heavily toward “Who You Know, with those numbers peaking at 61% among those aged 25-44.

The amount of money someone makes doesn’t seem to affect their opinion. When we looked across the income spectrum, we saw very little change – all income groups valued “Who” over “What.” Though, it’s worth pointing out that people making over $150k were slightly more balanced at 51%-49%.

The higher a respondent’s level of education, the LESS they valued “What You Know.” This is counter-intuitive to say the least. The differences were razor-thin but people with a High School or GED degree were the least likely of all groups to choose “Who You Know.” Apparently, people who spend more time and money on their educations don’t necessarily see it as the biggest asset in their careers.

The people who are happiest in their jobs are the MOST likely to value “What You Know.” This one was very interesting. One of our tracking questions is “How happy are you in your current job?” When we crossed this with our What/Who You Know question above, we found that the happier a respondent was with their current job, the more they were likely to value “What” you know over “Who.” In fact, people who valued “Who You Know” were twice as likely to say they are “Very Unhappy” in their current job. We can’t prove the exact causality here but here’s a theory: If we are successful in our jobs and careers (and thus happy), we’d like to think that we earned it through hard work, skill, and experience. If we are not so successful in our jobs and careers (and thus unhappy), then perhaps the cynics among us would rather blame “the system” – which rewards people who kiss up to their bosses and master the art of office politics.

Overall, the results to this question are fairly evenly divided, which means that the debate will simply roll on. But, if we want to make two far-reaching (if debatable) conclusions from this analysis, they would be:

  • Older adults, who can look back on a life and career long-lived, place far more value on the knowledge and experience they’ve gained than the rolodex they built.
  • Managers who want to build a team of happy employees should create an environment that rewards merit and talent over personal contacts and networking.


Featured image by Dana Moos