Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Against "networking" for networking's sake

From Willliam Carroll, Jr., the former chair of the board of director of ACS, a very interesting comment on the power of networking in this week's C&EN. It riffs off a recent New York Times article where they reveal that some companies (Ernst and Young, Deloitte) rely on internal referrals for (respectively) 45% and 49% of their non-entry-level placements. This is where Dr. Carroll loses me:
In some ways, this process is disturbing. You may wonder, “Do I really need to know somebody to get a job? What happened to merit?” Although disturbing, it’s also understandable. Deloitte receives 400,000 résumés per year. If a résumé gets just seven seconds of attention, human prescreening of that many résumés would take more than 100 person-days per year. It’s simpler, cheaper, and more reliable to sort by keyword and get referrals. 
Diversity is an issue, however. Companies recognize that people tend to recommend people like themselves. That’s one reason why many limit the percentage of people hired via referrals and recruit entry-level personnel differently...
So why am I telling you another disturbing story about jobs? Because there’s a take-home lesson: A network is even more important than we thought it was.
I preach the network to groups of grad students and postdocs. I say to them, “Do you know everyone here? Turns out, most of you will have successful careers—some of you will be in C&EN. Here’s a chance to meet stars early, become colleagues, and later brag that you knew them when. Imagine how far you’ll go with each other’s network.”
Dr. Carroll then points out that networking is something he believes is a core function of the American Chemical Society, there are 163,000 members on the ACS Network*, that ACS local sections are a great place to get to know people and get involved and fdafguyfdsfereruirere -- sorry, I fell asleep.

In one sense, I think that Dr. Carroll is right. Networking is more important than ever, and it is very important that your network knows when you are looking for a new position and how best to help move you forward in your career goals. It is important to get to know influential people, work for them and to make a good impression on them. 

That said, shouldn't someone push back against all of this networking mumbo-jumbo? Aren't there legitimate questions of merit to be discussed about These Modern Times and our approach to hiring at all levels? I confess that I really dislike the phrase "It's not what you know, it's who you know", especially as applied to success in the job market. Does any of Dr. Carroll's comment go against that terrible phrase? 

Instead of another paean to "networking", I would like to see people of Dr. Carroll's stature indicate what technical skills and character traits that employers most like to see. We all know that some people have "it" -- what exactly are those traits, and how can we grow them in ourselves? Wouldn't that be a better thing to spend column inches talking about, rather than another suggestion that you "get to know people"? 

*Isn't it time that we declare the ACS Network a failed experiment? How many active users are there on the ACS Network? Does it even reach 1% of membership? In 2008, it was cool to establish new online social networks. It's not 2008 anymore. 

11 comments:

  1. " Aren't there legitimate questions of merit to be discussed about These Modern Times and our approach to hiring at all levels?"

    A nice idea, but unlikely to ever happen: people like being around people like themselves. Meritocracy is a nice idea, but so are unicorns. This can inhibit "diversity", though (like opportunity cost of one career versus another) I've never seen this meaningfully quantified (it sounds all warm and fuzzy, to be sure). Another way to look at it is a self-selection process of similarly talented people: again, smart talented people tend not to associate with the dull schmucks.

    "I really dislike the phrase "It's not what you know, it's who you know". I once heard one I hate even more---"Your network is your net worth"---still makes me cringe.

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    1. Yeah, I used to believe in pure meritocracy, but I don't anymore. There's too much human bias in most human judgments (unless, of course, we were to switch to gender/race/age/institution-blind hiring. Unicorn-land.)

      But self-selection is something be aware of, and to rein in when necessary.

      But I think "networking" has jumped the shark. It's all about "getting to know people" and not about actually getting to know people.

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    2. CJ - I couldn't agree more. Although networking is undeniably important, there seems to be an over-reliance on this word to evade answering the very questions you've posed. It's on the verge of becoming a buzzword without much meaning, much as entrepreneurship and innovation have. It's like a career consultant's Jedi mind trick—"Those aren't the jobs you're looking for."

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  2. A long time ago when I was working at a GSK site, one wag put up a sign on the door of the break room saying "Networking Suite". Management were apparently quite taken with it until another wag changed the "e" to an "o". The sign disappeared mysteriously shortly afterwards. I agree with Glen. Networking, along with diversity , has become one of those meaningless jargon words which makes me want to regurgitate.I automatically stop listening to whoever utters them.

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  3. I'm a scientist, not a networker... and I'm paying the price, including for job loyalty which limited my exposure to different people. I'm trying my absolute best to find a position in the St. Louis (from RTP), but with limited referrals from inside these companies, my resume is getting passed over. The couple times I had a connection I've at least gotten a phone interview (then $ becomes the issue!)

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  4. I understand the importance of knowing and being known by lots of people in the industry. But I'm not good at networking, and I'm not even really sure what networking actually is. I have former co-workers I haven't talked to in years, but I'd be happy to make sure their resumes get where they should go and I would push for them as candidates (and hopefully they'd do the same for me). That's because I've worked with them and I know they're really good. Having these sorts of relationships seems to be critical for job seekers. What I'm more unsure about is the kind of "networking" that often means going to events, spending a lot of time on the phone, etc. I understand it can be important to maintain some visibility, but people are really busy, and if we weren't close on a personal level would people really want me bugging them all the time? And if it's somebody I just met at a networking event, are they really going to stick their neck out for me? How much value is there to doing all these things that are often called networking, compared with just remembering people and reaching out to them when there is a need, and conversely helping them when they need it? Maybe it's just my introverted nature trying to rationalize my poor networking skills....

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  5. I agree with z. I'm a bit of an introvert and a curmudgeon, and "mixing" events with total strangers fill me with dread. But I'm happy to forward resumes of ex-colleagues to the right person, and give them interview advice. I get a little browned off when they get the job and I never hear from them again, though. Sure that's not what networking's supposed to be about!

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  6. Networking will only get you so far. In fact, I'd say that merit is still what gets you (most) jobs. Your network only gets you in a position to show your value to a potential employer.

    What makes LinkedIn so valuable is that it shows you who you know that has a connection to somebody in the company you are applying to. Conversely, we have little need for the ACS version (surely only a subset of the larger?) so it has little value.

    I don't go overboard on networking. I don't go to many 'networking events', though I did more when I was out of work. I see networking as keeping in touch with old colleagues.

    The truth of the matter is that networking is vital in a job market like this because so many similarly qualified people are out there. How do you get selected from among the 100 applicants? Employers take a risk every time they hire someone that that person will not fit within the company. So if someone has a personal connection it is lessening that risk to a greater or lesser degree.

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  7. chemicalspace is spot on:
    "How do you get selected from among the 100 applicants? Employers take a risk every time they hire someone that that person will not fit within the company. So if someone has a personal connection it is lessening that risk to a greater or lesser degree."

    If you already know you can get along with someone (all other things being equal), aren't you going to give them a slight edge over an unknown quantity? Unfortunately, there is also the question of "truthiness" on resumes - how do you know the unknown applicant isn't embellishing his or her resume?

    Regarding networking, I think everyone is interpreting the word a little too narrowly. When I meet former colleagues for lunch or coffee, I consider that networking. And every so often, one of the lunch bunch will invite a new person to lunch. When I lived in Boston, I was a regular at Biotech Tuesday - it was an easy way to meet people who also had some interest or connection to pharma/biotech, and check out some interesting venues. I went every other month or so, which was just enough for me to see some familiar faces. I guess the bottom line is, attending one "networking event" does not build a network. I think of networking like gardening - you have to devote a little time and energy to it on a regular basis in order for it to produce fruit.

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  8. As someone who just got an unlisted job through networking, I'd like to make the case for putting yourself out there. Yes, you need to have the credentials to get the job, but in meeting people face-to-face, you practice communicating, a skill that is poorly practiced in the experimental sciences. At an industry job, you will be working on some sort of interdisciplinary team to develop some sort of product, and you *must* be more than a pair of hands or you will be easily replaced. So, being able to carry on a conversation with a complete stranger about any type of science or chemistry is really necessary. I've noticed that some people are really bad at talking about themselves, while others can't stop talking about themselves. Some people pick fights, and others agree with everything. If you can reach a happy medium, you will come across as a team player and someone who can adapt to what the business needs -- a *fit* no matter how the company evolves.

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  9. At the end of the day we all have so many contacts that are just one click away so it is easier to find jobs in all sorts of different fields. The networks we have created are so great for these kinds of things.

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