Who you know, not what you know?

Constructive criticism is a chance to learn and improve. Emotionally intelligent people, when receiving constructive feedback, keep their emotions in check and immediately ask themselves ‘How can I improve?’


By Kevin-James Fenech

Kevin is the founder and owner of JOB Search - jobsearch.mt and FENCI Consulting fenci.eu.

Arguably, it isn’t the most competent that make it in the working world but the best connected. Hence the old saying, ‘It’s Not What You Know. It’s Who You Know’.

According to a survey (Source: People Management) which involved a poll of 2,000 UK workers aged 18-65, two in five people believe that knowing influential people in business is essential to being hired or promoted and only a quarter said ‘work ethiw’ was an influential factor in getting hired or promoted, while a mere 21% said ‘talent’ played a key role. Surprised?!

I must concede that there is some truth in ‘Who you know’ counting a lot more than ‘What you know’.

The people that make it to the top are not necessarily always the best or most talented. Knowing influential people; being well networked; and having ‘friends’ in the right places; does make a big difference in life.

Let’s be brutally frank and blunt: it helps if you are liked in life; if you have a natural disposition to being likeable BUT and this is where I deviate from the original meaning of this famous quote: I think ‘what you know’ is a qualifier whereas ‘who you know’ (added to ‘what you know’) is the game-changer. You need both in reality.

Typically, ‘likeable’ people have high emotional intelligence, which means they have a knack for reading peoples’ emotions and adjusting their own to suit the situation. Such people make it in life. Since emotionally intelligent people are good at connecting with others; with understanding each others’ interests and trying to satisfy both; and with making others feel appreciated or listened to. This counts a lot in life and being intelligent (whilst important to a certain extent) is not the be all and end all. A highly intelligent person with low emotional intelligence will struggle to connect with people and someone less intelligent or even less qualified but high on emotional intelligence will fare much better. Back in the old days, we use the phrase ‘more streetwise’.

My point is that the saying, ‘It’s Not What You Know. It’s Who You Know’, whilst it holds some truth, is only half the story. By this I mean, successful people need ‘to know’ a lot more than what they find in or learn from books. So the ‘what you know’ is important but you also need the ‘who you know’, and it is typically emotionally intelligent people who marry the two and see the connections or common ground so as to frame problems and their solutions in such a way that it is always win-win and connect with people.

You also need to know that some negative feedback is gold. Constructive criticism is a chance to learn and improve. Emotionally intelligent people, when receiving constructive feedback, keep their emotions in check and immediately ask themselves ‘How can I improve?’.

You also need to know that authentic people shine and rise above the average. So think long term in any relationship, especially employer-employee or business partnership, and stick to your values and principles.

Do not take short-cuts! Again emotional intelligent people can do this very well.

Lastly, you need to know how to show genuine empathy. Emotionally intelligent people can understand other peoples’ thoughts and feelings. Instead of judging co-workers or business partners, you should strive to see things from their perspective first, since this is the only way to build meaningful relationships and apply ‘what you know’ and ‘who you know’ to make a success in life.

So to my mind, ‘What You Know’ gets you invited to the table but ‘Who You Know’ let’s you play at the table and ‘emotional intelligence’ allows you to read peoples’ emotions and constantly carve win-win solutions to life.

The world has become very ‘egalitarian’ and the ‘barriers to entry’ have been lowered. I mean the opportunity to obtaining an academic qualification has never been so ubiquitous; to borrow money for a business idea is arguably a lot easier today than it was twenty years ago; and access to the ‘corridors of power’ is almost open to all. Anyone can email the Prime Minister and get a reply; this is what I mean by ‘egalitarian’. So the opportunity is there for almost anyone to seize!  

Yet the people who tend to get the all important job promotion; the people who launch a successful start-up and scale-up; or the people that lead the most successful organisations; are the ones who are emotionally intelligent since they tend to be the ones to successfully maximise their chances in the current landscape.

What matters, therefore, is ‘What You Know’ plus ‘Who You Know’ and ultimately how you marry the two together to create something more powerful and mutually beneficial.

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