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A Nation Of Networkers

May 2024
6min read

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.

Like many men of my generation, I have learned a great deal not only from Games Mother Neuer Taught You but also from books with titles like The Managerial Woman, The New Executive Woman, The Working Woman Success Book , and so on. Such books purport to teach women a variety of no-nonsense lessons that men are assumed to have learned in Little League. Judging from my own experience, the authors overestimate the value of Little League as preparation for the corporate jungle. When I am looking for worldly advice, when 1 feel the need for a shot of straight-from-theshoulder cynicism, I do not go to any of the old boys in my old boys’ network: I go to the books in which women tell women how to make it in a man’s world.

Where else but in Games Mother Never Taught You , for instance, would 1 have learned that helping other people in my office marks me as a corporate sucker. Noting what she describes as an “excessive devotion to duty” among women in the work force, Harragan needs only three sentences to demolish the illusion that “pitching in” is a virtue in business: “Redoing someone else’s work is not your job. Assuming responsibility outside the parameters of your function is not your job.… Someone else’s failure to perform is not your problem.”

When I feel I need a shot of cynicism, I go to the books in which women tell women how to make it in a man’s world.

But that’s just the start. Where else would I have learned what to do when a prospective employer asks for my current salary (“lie”), or what view to take of salary negotiations (“substantial raises have little to do with ability or achievement and nothing to do with personal self-worth”), or how to spend my first weeks on a new job: “I was all over the place, ‘getting acclimated.’… The first time some smart aleck ‘forgot’ to pass along a piece of information, I waited till the next staff meeting when the manager was present and innocently said, ‘Last week Joe accidentally forgot to tell me about such-and-such. Is there anything additional I should know about today’s subject that might not have reached me?’ ”

These are games that my father never taught me, and I’m grateful to have Harragan as my mentor. She offers exactly the counsel that a young man needs if he wants to compete with the women who accompanied him to business school and among whom he now jockeys for position in the overcrowded ranks of American middle management. Though it aims for an audience of women, I suspect that Games Mother Never Taught You is the secret weapon hidden in the briefcase of many a bright young man who has outpaced his competitors on the corporate fast track over the past few years.

What has especially impressed me in the women’s self-help literature is the insistence upon the legitimacy of pure careerism. The emphasis on networking —the acquisition, cultivation, and exploitation of professional connections —is a good example. On this subject a soft-minded fellow might feel some squeamishness, but he can buck himself up with a dose of tough-mindedness from The Working Woman Success Book , where he comes upon the example of a woman executive who says, “I used to think it wasn’t ‘nice,’ that it was ‘using’ people, to make friends with someone because of his or her job or because of their possible usefulness to me later, but I’ve learned. …” “Basically,” the same book assures the reluctant networker, “it’s not a case of ‘using’ people for your own ends. It’s exchange for mutual benefit, the trading of information, ideas, and favors.” In this formulation, networking is seen as nothing less than a twentieth-century rebirth of Adam Smith’s famous “invisible hand”; a society of self-interested networkers, each single-mindedly pursuing his or her ends, will trade favors in a way so mutually advantageous that the good of each becomes the good of all.

Networking is a new name for an old game—a game that fathers like Willy Loman never failed to teach their sons. “It’s not what you do,” Willy exclaims. “It’s who you know and the smile on your face! It’s contacts … contacts! The whole wealth of Alaska passes over the lunch table at the Commodore Hotel, and that’s the wonder, the wonder of this country, that a man can end with diamonds … on the basis of being liked!”

I myself am a great believer in networking, and my eagerness to play the game has caused me considerable frustration. Here I am, ready to plug into my network, but I can’t seem to find the outlet. I feel the way Esau must have felt when he tried to claim his birthright, or perhaps I feel the way Esau would have felt if his sister had claimed his birthright, or perhaps I feel the way women feel when they look at men.

Where are the old boys, anyway? I suppose that for a few of us, the old boys are cherished classmates from the good old days at Choate, Groton, Exeter, or some comparable establishment. As an outsider it seems obvious to me that preppies belong to a network, in exactly the way that it seems obvious to women that men like me belong to a network.

For the rest of us, and maybe even for the preppies, the old boys are the boys that we grew up with—that is, the boys with whom we used to eat pizza, watch girls, play baseball, and share our dreams. We may have seemed unimpressive in our teens, but now that we have reached our thirties, we have blossomed into a formidable collection of accountants, dentists, pharmacists, hospital administrators, and so on. You can see us when we get together to do a little networking—American men grabbing lunch together, or eyeing the girls in their summer dresses, or sitting together at a baseball game, sipping beer and remembering old heroes. Sometimes you can even see us sitting with our wives, and sometimes with our daughters—the executive females of the twenty-first century, not yet aware that years of networking lie ahead. They can learn a thing or two from Cotton Mather, if they take the trouble.

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