Network or nepotism: where do we draw the line?

“Work your network.”

“Employee referrals are the best way to find talent.”

“Oh, I have a great person I can recommend for that.”

“It’s not WHAT you know, it’s WHO you know.”

Depending on your point of view, you either think these statements are helpful and motivating, or the embodiment of everything that’s wrong in society today.

This eternal debate is at the heart of my frustration with “hire for fit” or requests from conference planners for recommendations of speakers. On the one hand, it is important to find people who don’t necessarily “match” but certainly “go” – they complement the business in ways that moves the organization forward rather than fights for fighting’s sake. On the other hand, you can end up with a whole lot of same.  – the same thinking, the same looking, the same people, the same faces.

I struggle with this because I’ve benefited from my network. I’ve been afforded opportunities I wouldn’t have because the people in my circle of trust have recommended me for things, or have hired me for gigs, or have introduced me to people who then helped me do cool things. I am grateful to my network and humbled they think to recommend me for anything. And I really love the opportunity to refer someone I know because they are smart, talented, capable, all that stuff.


And yet…

I recognize that someone else who had some mad skillz may not have gotten the opportunity because they don’t know the right people. And that it’s really hard to break into a new industry or group or company when you’re new and sometimes the “old guard” circles the wagons a little too much.

In hiring, data suggests employee referrals are the “best” – they tend to be sticky and because an employee is putting his/her reputation on the line, the referrals aren’t usually awful. For those of you who work among those with particularly niche skill sets (IT, OD, Legal,, etc.), you recognize the fact there are typically six (or fewer) degrees of separation between you and any possible candidate because we all keep referring the same people over and over.

What do we do about it? Throw out referrals all together? Avoid going to our network to ask about who should be a part of an event? Refuse to hire someone we’ve worked with before?

Yeah, maybe.

Or maybe not.

Maybe we just need be a little more aware of who we reach out to. Maybe we need to be intentional about the balance of referrals to new voices when it comes to giving opportunities. Maybe we need to take a chance now and then because it’s exciting to meet/hear/see/hire someone new.

Think of it this way – Marvel movies are great. The MCU has done a fantastic job of weaving together multiple storylines and breathing new life into old characters (you know Ironman was a secondary title, right?). But deep down, every once in awhile you kind of want to see something original. There’s a reason Greatest Showman had legs in the box office (and only part of it can be attributed to Hugh Jackman). It doesn’t take anything away from Marvel and movies you love. But it does give you glimpse of something different that you might not have wanted to watch.

So here’s my challenge for you – for every person who is your “go-to” referral for something, try to also refer someone new. It will grow the network at large and offer opportunity to those who may not have the reach that others do.

Plus, when that person turns into a star, you can always say you discovered them.


The currency of real network in not greed, but generosity.

~ Keith Ferrazzi



Embrace your inner geek! (finding authenticity)

Can you name all 6 Star Wars movies (tag line and all)? Are you aware of the Star Trek “odd numbered movie” curse? Have you seriously debated Kirk vs. Picard, BSG vs. Firefly, Tennant vs. Smith? (That’s a Doctor Who reference, in case you didn’t know.)*

If you answered yes to any (or all…) of these questions, you’re a geek. Congratulations!  Geek-dom boasts a proud and varied host of members – intelligent, successful, overly friendly at conventions.  And yet, how do you react when someone pegs your geek cred?  Do you proudly proclaim, “YES. I. AM.”?  Or (like most people in corporate America who don’t work in IT) do you laugh it off, saying you must have seen the reference on SNL or something?

I bring this topic up because leaders (and the led) benefit from the ability to admit who they are to each other.  It touches on a level of transparency that is often missing from the office world, which in turn impacts our ability to see each other as individuals rather than archetypes that pepper business literature these days.  We must be professional, dress for the job you want not the one you have, network even if you’re an introvert, cultivate relationships, etc.  This is all good advice; after all, there is a certain expectations that leaders have.  Layered on those expectations, however, should be a willingness to show who you are.

“Leadership authenticity” is a popular topic these days (a current Google search listed 10.9M results) – strive to identify your core values and lead by them.  I also think it means to be true to yourself, letting your freak (or geek) flag fly.  When I think back to the leaders I’ve admired, they were typically people who knew who they were and weren’t afraid to show it.  There’s an immense level of confidence, and trust, in being willing to share your true self with those at work.  Not surprisingly, employees often respond to your willingness to share by lowering their guard and sharing something with you.  This pays off beyond simple relationship building.  I’ve found that teams who share something of themselves work better together, are more creative and productive, are willing to hold each other accountable, and feel comfortable with productive conflict.  But you can’t simply tell your team to share – you have to set the expectation…and lead by example.

Embracing your inner geek (or sports fanatic/car junkie/Kardashian stalker/whatever) might sound scary to some of you.  And for some of you, the culture of your current workplace means sharing your geekosity (shut up, it’s a word) would pretty much guarantee you never get that promotion you’ve been working towards.  If that’s the case, you have a choice to make – find ways to share who you are without jeopardizing your standing, or maybe find a culture that embraces the idea people can be who they are…and STILL produce quality work.

Still don’t believe in the power of the Geek?  That’s cool, I get it.  It took me awhile to get my geek on, too.  To help get you started, I’ve shared my top 4 reasons for why embracing my inner geek was beneficial:

  1. Builds credibility among the people who get work done: It’s important to connect to leaders in a company, I get that.  But how do you gain visibility with leaders?  By getting things done.  And you get things done by building relationships with the people who do the day-to-day – facilities, IT, help desks, copy rooms, studios, the guys in the field, etc.  To many of the, I was just another person from corporate (worse, HR from corporate)…until I showed I could hold my own in conversations about Star Wars, D&D, movie trivia.  I showed that I was willing to be myself, and that I was a real person.  As a result, I built informal networks that allowed me to get work done quickly.
  2. Forges a connection with employees: When I facilitate leadership workshops, I always tell the participants that they have to find a way to connect with every single person on their team.  It’s a reality of life that we won’t always “like” the people we lead – but it is our responsibility to respect them as a person, and find a way to relate to them on a human level.  Embracing my inner geek (which also includes a love of useless trivia) has allowed me to find ways to connect to my employees on a personal level, which not only builds a relationship but also gave me a chance to learn more about them.
  3. Annoys those people who refuse to admit they have an inner geek: You know who I’m talking about.  The people who claim they “don’t watch television”, and then want to talk about The Bachelor for 3 hours.  Sure, it’s a little petty, but I admit to a little giggle when I’m able to just be myself and they feel they need to pretend to be someone else because they think it will make them look cooler.  [Editor’s Note: it does not make you look cooler.]
  4. I’m happier at work: Listen, we are at work a LOT.  When you do the math to realize how much of your time is spent on the job, it’s a little depressing.  On second thought, DON’T do that.  Okay, the point is that it takes a lot of effort and energy to keep trying to act like you don’t watch Top Gear or have a basement full of Star Wars stuff or watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a marathon to prep for The Hobbit.  (Just for the record, I didn’t watch ALL of them, but I did reminisce about the animated version.)  Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I don’t have to apologize for who I am.  Do I adjust my topics of conversation based on who’s in the room?  Of course – that’s just being a smart person.  But do I shy away from my geek roots?  Heck no.

As a leader, I know my people look to me for permission to be themselves.  As a follower, I look to my leader for the right to be who I am.  This is authenticity.

Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.   ~ Simon Pegg



*For the record, Kirk was cooler, Firefly kicks BSG’s butt, and Tennant is the only Doctor to tempt me away from Tom Baker.

**Image borrowed shamelessly from this cool post.