At least, that’s the conclusion of a Cabinet Office report into social mobility and access to the professions. Networking and nepotism, it argues, has made the professions more socially exclusive then they were 20 years ago.
The indignant response to these findings perhaps reflects the age of many newspaper columnists who, like me, were brought up on the idea of meritocracy and ever-narrowing class barriers.
During the 1980s, the egalitarian ideas from the 60s and 70s were still widely unquestioned. School and university careers advisers emphasised the importance of acquiring skills and knowledge. Some of them even talked about the need for interpersonal skills and the importance of being able to work with people but the language was still that of abilities rather than relationships.
Go back to an earlier time and the importance of getting to know people and building relationships would have been unquestioned, especially in the top public schools. It might not have been explicitly taught but it was understood. In the 1980s, though, careers teachers and lecturers didn’t talk about networking. That smacked of the old boys’ clubs and had no place in a meritocracy.
Now, of course, the word networking has made the practice of doing business through informal and exclusive networks, respectable again.
When I worked in the City, we were paid a handsome bounty if we recommended people and the firm recruited them. Many firms do this. It makes commercial sense. Your staff do the pre-screening as they don’t want to put forward people who will make them look stupid by failing the process. Your staff also act as talent scouts, finding friends and friends of friends to plug your skills gaps. It is much cheaper than paying for adverts in the broadsheets or handing over eye-watering finders’ fees to headhunters. But it also means that firms recruit from a narrow social circle.
Meritocracy and narrowing social divisions is a nice idea but I wouldn’t hold my breath. If I could go back and tell my 20 year-old self one thing, it would be the importance of making the right connections and getting to know people. Yes, it’s important to have the right skills. If you are no good, people will find out and, eventually, you’ll be kicked out no matter who your friends are.
But, provided your skills are good enough, building the right relationships is the key to success. I only have anecdotal data for this but I’d say that mediocre skills and excellent networks get you further than excellent skills and poor networks. What is certain is that, when it comes to any selection decision, such as recruitment, promotion, redundancy or development opportunities, the people who have put themselves about and have the right contacts win. Business works on trust. People choose to work with people they know. That’s just the way it is.
I hope that schools and universities teach this to students now. Social mobility and the breaking down of closed networks is a wonderful aspiration but it’s not one on which to build your career strategy. These days, teachers and lecturers should be impressing on students the importance of identifying the people with the power to help them and then getting to know them.
What you know is important but, like it or not, who you know is what makes the difference to your career.