What your co-workers know about you when you start a job can make a difference in the networks you build throughout your tenure at the company.
Even when a newcomer has the advantage of having a personal contact at an organization, what fellow employees know about his or her qualifications can affect that person’s ability to form social networks, says Stanford GSB professor Adina D. Sterling.
Sterling’s research, “Preentry Contacts and the Generation of Nascent Networks,” was published in June in Organization Science and sheds light on how people build professional networks.
For example, all things being equal, a fresh hire who has a personal contact at the firm and a mediocre school record will succeed at meeting more people at the company than a new employee who may have performed better at school but lacks a pre-existing contact.
In the first case, since people know little about how the person will perform, the endorsement of his personal contact compensates for his lack of reputation at the company. “The pre-entry contact matters a lot when there aren’t obvious signals of how good somebody is, especially in organizations where it takes a long time for people to learn about you,” says Sterling.
But if people know that a newcomer’s qualifications for job performance are weak, the advantage of having a pre-existing contact there evaporates, hindering the ability to form a network, Sterling found. The contact, too, may be less inclined to make introductions to protect his or her own reputation. Also, the introductions that do occur are less likely to benefit the new employee because people are likely to harbor doubts.
On the other hand, if the other employees know that a newcomer’s qualifications and credentials are high, that person’s ability to form a network jumps significantly, or is “amplified,” says Sterling. “For people of known high quality, the pre-entry contact helps them become even better known,” says Sterling, who joined Stanford GSB this year from Washington University in St. Louis. “If you’re good, that contact will let everyone else know.”
In the study, Sterling surveyed 251 MBA and law students who were headed to summer internships. The students indicated how many contacts they had at their respective organizations at the beginning of their internships and how many new ties they had formed there by the end of job. Students who ranked in the top 20% of their MBA or law class were marked as “high quality.”
Because employers in the legal field emphasize grades and class rankings, the study marked the law students as “high certainty,” meaning that their co-workers would probably know about and “feel certain” about the students’ competency. On the other hand, business schools generally de-emphasize grades and class rankings, and the students in the study did not generally report their GPAs to recruiters, Sterling says. Therefore it was difficult for co-workers to know much about an individual student’s academic performance, and the MBA students in the study were marked as “low certainty.”
The study showed that the highest quality law students formed the most contacts over the summer versus law students of lower quality. High-quality law students had excellent credentials and benefited from their co-workers’ certainty about them. But, they formed even more contacts when they had a pre-existing one. For MBA students, their academic record didn’t matter as much, while whom they knew when they started the job did matter. “When there are objective measures of quality that indicate how good you are, like academic grades or billable hours, pre-entry contacts can’t always help you,” says Sterling. But when people feel they know you’re high quality, “the amplifying effect [on the size of your network] happens.”
The research suggests that the old saying “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know” isn’t always true, Sterling says. “There are real times when it matters how good you are and whether people know it,” she says.
High-quality people will sometimes find themselves in situations where their abilities and qualifications aren’t known, such as when they join a new company or make a career change, adds Sterling. At times like that, those people might do well to put in some extra effort and work strategically on building relationships. “Relationships are going to be the buffer,” she says, “that carries you through before how good you are becomes evident.”