There is an old saying that "Who You Know" is more important in advancing your career than "What You Know", and I think this is probably true, but only partly. Having many meaningful relationships within your organization, industry and/or community is unquestionably a great way of ensuring you get the recognition you deserve and the consideration you desire when new roles become available. However, this is not the whole story.
My experience is that "Who You Know" is the most important thing in being considered for that new opportunity, promotion or job and that "What You Know" is the most important thing in keeping that new opportunity, latest promotion or new job.
Often this second part of the "trust cycle" is unseen and under appreciated because doing well at the "competence" side results in the status quo. Failing at the competence side however, can result in being fired, demoted or losing business - hardly a desirable outcome! It is my belief that both "Who You Know" and "What You Know" are critical to career success but that "Who You Know" often gets the spotlight as the best way of becoming successful.
I think a lot of people hoping to advance their careers don't necessarily appreciate which part of the "Trust Cycle" they are in and as a result, end up focusing their efforts in the wrong area.
For example, many professionals who want to advance their careers tend to focus on taking more courses or getting more credentials, e.g. PMP certification or an MBA. In short, they appear to subscribe to the idea that to get a promotion they need to increase their competence. Does this focus cause them to get promoted? My guess is not very often primarily because while getting an MBA may increase their initial state of credibility with a third party, it is unlikely to do anything in terms of increasing the level of trust with that third party.
I have also noticed the other side of the cycle as well. Often when someone gets a new role, a promotion or a new client - they often do not focus on building their competence (and focus on justifying the trust) but rather they start to network more and build relationships not directly related to their new role. Thus instead of growing the skills, gaining the knowledge and developing the expertise to allow them to demonstrate competence, and justify the trust they have received, they focus instead on relationships - which may or may not serve them well in achieving success in their new role.
So does this mean that any employee or business owner should only focus on one area of growth (relationships or competence) at a time? Oh, if only life were so simple!
My thinking is that it is of value to understand where you are in the "trust cycle" with each individual and circumstance. In a very broad context, if you are bored in your current role because you are already unconsciously competent, then clearly focusing on relationships may be the best option for moving forward. If however you are challenged by your role and excited about the personal growth required - then this is likely a great place to focus.
On a narrower context, the concept can also be sliced up by client or customer as well. To gain a customer, requires the establishment of trust through relationships. To maintain that customer requires that you justify the trust with competence. So as you consider your client base, where are you in the process? Are you still buying them dinner or are you delivering on your promises?
I have noticed a lot of people have an issue with focusing on relationships at work. (I know I did.) I spent a large part of my career believing in the idea that "the cream always rises to the top". In other words, as long as I did great work, I would be recognized and promoted. I was even somewhat righteous about this philosophy - looking down at the chummy people with their glad handing and socializing as somehow being cheap, sly or cheesy. Yes the phrase, "suck ups" comes to mind.
I now see this phenomenon much differently. Rather than "suck ups", I now see these people as "trust builders" with the proviso that they have to have the competence to sustain the trust they create. Those that don't have or develop that competence - well we are all familiar with the "Peter Principle" that says people will be promoted to their level of incompetence! There is truth to that saying as well!