Pull: Networking and Success Since Benjamin Franklin

I recently had a chance to have a conversation with Pamela Walker Laird, a History professor with the University of Colorado at Denver, and author of the new book Pull: Networking and Success Since Benjamin Franklin, a history of networking and mentoring in American business, published by Harvard University Press, 2006.

She was kind enough to agree to participate in an email interview about her new book.

David Teten: Why this book? What led to it? How did it evolve?

Pamela Walker Laird: As a business historian, I repeatedly come across biographies of so-called self-made men whose careers had in fact depended on mentors and access to powerful networks. I began this project to determine for what portion of well-known businessmen this was true. Pretty quickly it became clear that the statistic was easy to calculate: 100%. That is, not one case of a successful businessman or woman exists for which mentors and/or networks were not essential.

Why is this? It is possible to get rich by gambling, either at a roulette table or by day trading, without participating in networks. But real business is a social process. Learning the trade, getting leads, making connections, closing deals, getting promotions: they all require social interactions. It is not enough to “know” your trade. Moreover, how can you learn a trade and perform it in isolation? Certainly you can’t make deals if you are unknown or you can’t be accepted as a person worth talking to. Your chances of closing a deal vastly improve if you can share a golf game, a beer, or even a taxi with decision makers.

What began as a study of 19th-century entrepreneurial businessmen, then grew into the 20th century. I began to think about the modern notions of corporations as meritocracies. Within these, thanks to personnel departments and “objective” standards for hiring and promotion, people are supposed to succeed based on their work performance only. People think of “office politics” as an aberration, something that happens when the system breaks down. However, once I started looking into the realities of what was supposed to be a meritocracy, I realized that connections and even connectability mattered in corporations, as much as they do in small firms and as they always had in the past, in every environment.

Even so, I do not want to minimize the importance of individual initiative and abilities. After all, connections help those who help themselves. Connections can create a opportunities for some, and they can deny opportunities to others, but they cannot make people into successes without their own effort and talent.

David Teten: What are your goals for Pull? What sort of impact would you like it to have?

Pamela Walker Laird: In talking about this project over the last few years, many of my audiences have found it gratifying to have their own experiences validated by my scholarship. This is especially the response I have received from women and disadvantaged minorities, as well as from anyone who has been passed up on the corporate ladder by people with fewer task-specific skills than they had.

In addition to these individual responses, I hope that Pull will provide insights to decision makers within corporations as well as those within less-privileged advocacy groups. Sometimes there is nothing like a good story—or in this case, three hundred years of stories—to show how something works.

I also hope to have an effect on how we think about people’s success and failure. Social capital is the term sociologists have developed for what I have been calling “connections and connectability”. Anyone who reads Pull will ask, “What is the social capital story behind every success or failure?” That is, we will start to look for the advantages from having mentors and access to influential networks, or, conversely, the disadvantages of not having connections or not being connectable.

David Teten:—What could a CEO who was trying to build a diverse management team gain from Pull?

Pamela Walker Laird: • Most executives today understand how differences between groups of people can complicate and possibly undermine their firms’ interpersonal dynamics. So their commitments to employing and promoting diverse populations are practical as well as idealistic. Yet the best of intentions are usually not enough to see the bottlenecks and the pitfalls. Pull shows how managers struggled for decades with these problems and how some of them learned how to overcome them. More often than not, the strategies that worked applied universally what were understood by the 1960s as good, basic personnel management procedures. The trick was applying such recruiting, hiring, and promotion practices to everyone, and not just to those who seemed to have “potential.” Pull shows the problems that can result from presumptions about who has potential.

• However, no amount of “objectivity” in personnel practices can overcome the social factors in gatekeeping and networking. Therefore, rather than try to suppress the social factors, which simply drives them underground and generates all the tensions related to office politics, top managers can develop strategies for synthesizing social capital for everyone. Instead of ordering gatekeepers to exercise objective judgment, leaders can guide them to take their blinders off and to grow connections with people they might otherwise look past.

• This strategy is not the same as following all the latest cheery methods for “networking,” which tend to ignore persistent social processes and expectations. It means recognizing the power of social dynamics and distributing their advantages broadly. It may mean bringing social scientists on board to help everyone see ongoing stereotypes that persist despite the best of intentions. Predispositions and blind spots can hinder the operations of even the best laid plans for diversifying management and for creating teams out of the resulting mix.

• The trick to breaking through the glass ceiling and increasing diversity at the top of management is to recognize that people can’t break through from below, whatever their ambitions and talents. People can only pass through the glass ceiling by getting pulled from above. This almost always means that the people with whom top managers feel most comfortable are the ones they mentor and pull up. Therefore, mixing groups of people together is the key—creating ways for a sense of familiarity to develop between top managers and talented people with whom they would not ordinarily socialize.

David Teten: What are some of Pull’s lessons for ambitious individuals?

Pamela Walker Laird: — Because business is a social process, interactions are at its core. With whom do you interact? With whom do you have close, frequent interactions, and with whom do you have distant, occasional interactions? Optimally, you should interact with the people who make decisions about promotions or contracts as frequently as possible, both formally and informally. Sociologists have shown that we benefit by both “weak ties” and “strong ties.” Strong ties with people who don’t know anymore than we do, or who don’t have any more connections than we have, may not help us as much as multiple weak ties that are sources of lots of kinds of information and leads. Our “luck” can actually seem to improve as our contacts with other people grow. After all, sometimes luck is just a matter of hearing about a chance opportunity from a casual acquaintance.

The interactions that can benefit us don’t even need to be face-to-face, as you discuss in your recent book (The Virtual Handshake). Learning from online exchanges and making connections online are becoming increasingly useful tools. By adding up the benefits of many weak ties, online connections can provide a lot of information and advice. They can even lead to the close social interactions—the strong ties—that moving to the top of a corporate ladder or forming a partnership entail.

Sometimes even holding on to your job in this age of relentless downsizing requires deliberate care and feeding of your social capital. For example, if you telecommute, you must somehow make yourself “real” to the decision makers who put people’s names on the “keep” list. It is essential that you be something more than just a number or a name to them. Therefore, go to corporate headquarters on a regular basis. Find reasons to share “face time” with those list makers. Make sure that they think of you as a human being whom they like, as well as one who gets “the job done.” Keeping a job involves a lot more than “doing” it.

It is also possible to grow your social capital—if you can get past the first level of gatekeeping in your targeted profession. For instance, I know of a man who is now a screen writer. Initially he had no connections and couldn’t get any one to read his work, but he managed to get a job as a gofer in Hollywood. For a couple of years he ran errands and got coffee for screen writers and producers. Eventually, as writers got to know him, he could ask them to read something now and then. This long-term strategy for building social capital worked and got him “discovered.”

Networking does not just mean that you should pass out your business cards everywhere. Nor does making a pest of yourself help. A contact is not a connection. Nor is it always possible to be connectable. The people who are the gatekeepers or the decision makers in your field can be too insulated by their staffs, their schedules, the places where they socialize, or their prejudices to be accessible to you. If that is the case, then you have to figure out either how to break through that insulation, or rethink your ambitions. Sometimes the best strategy is that of the Hollywood gofer, who combined work and patience. He did his day-to-day job well and wrote his screen plays on his own time, preparing—not just waiting—for his opportunities.

David Teten: What myths does Pull challenge and how?

Pamela Walker Laird: — The most important myth that Pull overturns is that it is possible to be a self-made business success. For openers, Pull examines two of the most famous cases of allegedly self-made success, Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Carnegie, to demonstrate that even their successes involved astute and deliberate development and exploitation of networks. These two illustrious successes went against the statistical grain by truly achieving rags-to-riches success, for almost all American successes began in comfortable or very affluent circumstances. But they did not go against the social capital grain: like everyone else, their successes required access to networks and assistance from mentors and important gatekeepers.

The reason that social capital is necessary is that business is inherently, profoundly, a social process. It requires interactions, whether those be competitive or cooperative. Therefore, being a self-made success is impossible. That doesn’t mean that ambitious people can’t grow their social capital. It means that they must maximize the productive ways in which they interact with others who can assist them.

This also matters because we tend to praise people who become successful and think about them as having been self-made, as being rugged individualists. However, no one, not even Lee Iacocca or Jack Welch in our own times, has ever “made it” without help from mentors and networks.

David Teten: Do the insights of Pull apply beyond business?

Pamela Walker Laird: — The distributions of opportunity in all fields, in all professions, hinge on social dynamics. Having access to networks matters as much in medicine and academics as it does in business, possibly more. Likewise, in sports, coaches are the primary gatekeepers; in politics, lines of mentoring go back for generations; and in the courts, judges are almost always former clerks of older judges. Thus, up until the 1980s, most newspaper references to mentors were about people in sports, politics, and law, not business.

David Teten: How does Pull relate to your own background, training, experiences?

Pamela Walker Laird: — In the course of my life, I have had mentors in some situations, but lacked them in others. Being on both sides of this experience has given me insights about how these advantages work. In academia, mentors are at least as important as they are in business, and for all the same reasons: teaching the tools of the trade; giving advice; providing introductions to influential people; helping to form connections to gatekeepers. Watching all of this over the years and talking about it with a few trusted friends made me aware of the dynamics when I saw them happening in business.

One of Pull’s chapters begins with my experience working for a bank while I was in college. The vice president of my division asked me to stay, but when I jokingly said that I would stay if I could be a vice president in ten years, he was shocked! He said I could only become the secretary to a vice president. He was ready to be my mentor, but his ambitions for me would not have helped me climb his—or any other male-dominated—ladder. I had a contact, but it was not a connection.

David Teten: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me!