A Nation Of Networkers

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Recently I’ve been wondering why I’ve never joined any men’s clubs. This question, less momentous than those that usually agitate me, forced itself upon my attention when my wife was asked to write an article about men’s clubs for a magazine called The Executive Female .

“That’s a terrific subject,” I said. “If you were writing about men’s clubs for American Heritage, you could write about Cotton Mather. I think that America’s executive females ought to know more about Cotton Mather.”

In the Manuductio ad Ministerium , written in 1726, two years before his death, Mather had this suggestion for young men on the make in colonial America: “Form a SODALITY . What I mean, is, Prevail with a Fit Number … of Sober, Ingenious, and Industrious Young Men, to Associate with you, and meet One Evening in a Week , for the spending of Two or Three Hours, in a Profitable Conversation .” This advice makes the stern Puritan one of America’s earliest advocates of the activity that contemporary business writers call networking.

My wife, a sensible woman, did not even try to sneak a paragraph about Cotton Mather into The Executive Female . “Use it in American Heritage,” she suggested. “They might be crazy enough to let you.”

As a student of the American character, I watched with interest as my wife tackled the problem of writing about men’s clubs. She began with a flurry of phone calls to women—women with whom she had worked or socialized, friends, acquaintances, cousins of the friends of acquaintances. Soon, through introductions produced by this first series of calls, she was talking to men. Next she was meeting men for drinks—meeting them at the most exclusive men’s clubs in New York City.

By comparison, how did the man in the household approach the task when he decided to put “networking” in historical perspective for readers of this column? Phone calls, meetings, drinks? Don’t be silly! He locked himself in his study and spent the next six hours in solitary combat with a pad of paper.

The ease with which my wife could tap her “network” when she needed help with an article, and my own very different response in similar circumstances, reminds me of Betty Lehan Harragan’s Games Mother Never Taught You: Corporate Gamesmanship for Women —a book that made a great impression upon me in the summer of 1979, just after I graduated from business school, a summer I cheerfully devoted to books that promised to give me a proper start on the grand journey toward the achievement of my “career goals.”

Harragan argues that boys learn from their fathers vital lessons about life and work that girls do not learn from their mothers. ” ‘Working’ is a game women never learned to play,” she declares, and her book offers a map of “no-woman’s land"—the world of American business —to women who have stumbled or plunged into that world “as if… into a foreign territory. …”

In thinking about the lessons that boys learn from their fathers, consider the teachings of William Avery Rockefeller, the father of John D., Sr. We don’t know much about William, though we do know that in one period he made a living as a pitchman for patent medicines: “Dr. William A. Rockefeller, the Celebrated Cancer Specialist,” read his advertising handbills. We also know that he wanted his sons to be shrewd. “I trade with the boys,” he told a neighbor, “and skin ‘em and … beat ‘em every time I can. I want to make ‘em sharp.”

Another way to get an idea of the lessons that women have missed is to listen to the advice that Willy Loman gives to his sons in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman . Hidden inside Miller’s somber melodrama is a potential best seller that I would call Willy Loman’s Success Book . Some samples: “The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead.” “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.…” “Be liked and you will never want.” “Personality always wins the day.” “The world is an oyster, but you don’t crack it open on a mattress!”

As a dispenser of fatherly advice, Willy usually sounds as if he has never in his life read anything but business self-help books. When his son Biff is preparing for an important interview, Willy advises him to dress for success, to maintain an air of dignified reserve, and to lie: “Don’t wear sport jacket and slacks.… A business suit, and talk as little as possible, and don’t crack any jokes.… Be quiet, fine, and serious. … Tell him you were in the business in the West. Not farm work.” This is the worldly wisdom that women have missed—the precious legacy handed down from father to son, generation after generation, and withheld from unlucky daughters.