Know How vs. Know Who – What Do Employers Really Want?

By: Stephen Kindel

When you look at an advertisement for a new job, do you really know what you are looking at? In a shrinking economy, where companies struggle to maintain market share, let alone grow it, many jobs are what a friend of mine describes as “know who” jobs. That is, the condition of your employment is based upon the size and number of accounts you can bring with you, or take away from a competitor, usually the company you worked at before. Your potential new employer is not interested in you or your skills per se, but rather, in whom you can bring along with you as clients or customers. Almost all sales jobs today are know-who jobs, as are many positions in law (try getting a job at a new law firm without the ability to bring along former clients), and particularly, in the financial services industry. The ability to bring along your “book” of business is what is likeliest to land you a position, and not your knowledge of the industry.

Sadly, “know-who” grows in importance whenever the economy sours, but there is also an upside to know-who that can actually benefit you as you hunt for a position. Here’s what I mean: You are an all-star freelance copywriter who can generate business, for example, but you could probably generate a lot more business if you had some art director skills to throw in. If you take a look at a lot of jobs, as I do, you’ll notice that there are more and more “combi-jobs” appearing, positions that in the past might have been filled by two or three people, but where the the employer now wants those skills in a single person, to save money. These job mash-ups are rarely filled, because the people who might fill them don’t exist. Nevertheless, the work still needs to get done, and that’s where a kind of “know-who” takes over. If you have one, or perhaps two of a set of skills required for a job, being able to farm out the other parts of the job on a freelance basis might get you a position you might not otherwise get. Having your own stable of reliable freelancers available to do fill-in work can make you more valuable to a potential employer. They will be getting your services and skills, but you will also be able to tap into the skills of people you know and generate work for them as well.

Yet another way of looking at this mash-up phenomenon is to look at the changes that have taken place in the advertising agency business over the past two decades. Once upon a time, there was a distinction made between “above the line” budgets, which meant advertising, and “below the line” budgets, which referred to things such as direct mail, brochures, public relations and a host of ancillary marketing services that agencies used to spurn, and which resulted in the creation of companies that specialized in such work. No more. Now, especially with the rise of the Internet and social media, the distinctions between what is advertising and what isn’t have disappeared. What that means to you as a prospective job seeker is that you have to look to bring your skills into areas that might be unfamiliar with them, but which need those skills nevertheless. There, your ability to tap into your own network of skilled people can give you more to offer at an interview. The ability to say, “I know the job calls for both project management and copywriting skills, and I’m a great project manager, which is 75% of the job, but I know some great copywriters I can call on at a reasonable price for the rest of the work” just might get you the job.

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