It Is Who You Know

America's top achievers have always leveraged talent with social assets


Networking and Success

since Benjamin Franklin

By Pamela Walker Laird

Harvard University Press; 439pp; $29.95

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Editor's Review

Three Stars
Star Rating

The Good A penetrating look at how achievers have scaled the ladder?and why others failed.

The Bad Some readers may find the book's academic approach burdensome.

The Bottom Line Bios of legendary successes combined with historical analysis make for an illuminating account.

Whatever happened to the self-made man? According to Pamela Walker Laird, he -- or she -- never existed. Sure, individual talent and initiative matter. Yet Laird believes office grumblers are also on the right track when they complain that someone succeeded due to "connections" or that a dearth of women or minority managers is due to bias. What was long missing from historians' efforts to understand success, she argues, was a way of thinking embodied in an appropriate vocabulary: mentoring, networking, role modeling, gatekeeping. Laird, who admits these words have become a bit shopworn, says the terms' late-20th-century emergence has enabled a new understanding of the workings of upward mobility in America.

In Pull: Networking and Success since Benjamin Franklin, Laird offers an illuminating analysis of how exceptional achievers have combined individual talent with social assets in order to rise in society. The author, a historian at the University of Colorado at Denver, provides capsule biographies of such legendary successes as Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and Bill Gates. She also considers the history of those who have been shunted aside, notably women and African Americans, along with their attempts to fabricate social networks and get around exclusionary gatekeepers. If you're like me, these accounts will often have you murmuring "I didn't know that." But be forewarned: Laird's volume is academic, blessed or cursed, according to your point of view, with writing and a structure appropriate to that universe.

The case of Carnegie is instructive. As a Scottish immigrant growing up in the slums of Pittsburgh in the 1840s, young Andy wouldn't seem to have had much in the way of connections. But via family ties, the youth found a post in a telegraph office, and there his eagerness and charm won the attention of Thomas Scott, soon to be the superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad's western division. At each step on his rise to the top of that railroad's hierarchy, Scott brought along his young protégé. Scott, who "quickly became the center of Carnegie's professional world and remained there for years to come," would be the most important of many men, older and younger, who fostered Carnegie's career. The term didn't exist at the time, but Scott was in fact a mentor. To Carnegie, he was merely "my great man."

Such informal mechanisms were no longer adequate once organizations became larger and more complex. So, in the early 20th century, corporations began to develop more formal personnel departments and standardized processes for recruitment, hiring, training, and promotion. More and more, the educational system served as a gatekeeper, with the once-scorned college degree becoming, by the 1950s, a prerequisite for entering management ranks. Meanwhile, social networks, gender, race, and intangibles such as "likability" or perceived "potential" continued to determine whether doors opened or slammed shut. This was particularly the case at the higher rungs of the ladder: Laird details how, beginning in 1919, in a transition away from family operation, DuPont (DD ) executives groomed future President Walter S. Carpenter Jr., "whose intertwining of personal and business ties combined to make him a comfortable surrogate heir."

The author devotes considerable space to reviewing the halting steps by which African Americans and women advanced within Big Business. The 1964 Civil Rights Act disallowed "an entire system [of social capital] and its traditions of distributing opportunity." Yet the law banned only "push discrimination," or outright exclusion. Very quickly some saw that more would be required, especially to draw the disadvantaged into the system. Thus affirmative action was born, an approach the author refers to as "synthetic social capital." By 1968, Ford Motor (F ) announced that it would be aiming "not to screen out doubtful applicants but to screen in if possible," turning push to pull. But many African Americans and women pooh-poohed this approach, insisting that all they would need to get ahead was an equal chance.

Time proved them wrong and led to new ways of thinking. Laird tracks the emergence of such concepts as the glass ceiling, mentoring, and networking to the efforts of women, beginning in the 1970s, to penetrate barriers. By the end of the 20th century such mechanisms were widely appreciated. Even as the activism that inspired them began to fade from memory, the words became commonplace. "Mentors, networks, and role models now populate the index of every management book and every how-to-succeed treatise," notes Laird. In today's version of Horatio Alger literature, even self-made men have mentors.

By Hardy Green

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