Social Capital – HR’s Secret Weapon – Part 1


Social Capital truly is the secret weapon for human resources professionals. Let’s try to make it less secret and more of a weapon this year. In your last post, you offered up three topics that we should consider as we begin our discussion about social capital in HR:

  • social/relational capital as a strategic tool for the HR leader
  • how to get your HR team connected (and to whom)
  • relationship basics for the HR beginners
Since we’ve had at least one request to start with the first bullet, that seems like as good a place to start as any. But, before we can tackle any of these topics, we need to start by defining social capital, so I will tackle that in this post. The definition we generally use comes from our favorite book on social capital, Achieving Success through Social Capital by Wayne Baker:
Social Capital is the resources available to an individual through their relationships with and connections to others.
At first, the concept of social capital is difficult for some people to get their heads around. But, when you think about it, it makes sense that people who have more substantial networks have access to more “stuff’ than those who don’t. The types of stuff we talk about when we talk about social capital is information, expertise, introductions to others, favors, business and recruiting leads, cooperation, and a variety of other things. Essentially, social capital is anything of value to you that you have access to through a relationship with another person.
I’ll illustrate the power of social capital by sharing a story from my experiences in 2009 (and one that proves the point that it’s not WHAT you know but WHO you know that makes the difference when you are job hunting). For those who don’t know, I made a move in my career last year. My new role as an HR VP is a job I have really enjoyed and is a great job at a great company. It is the kind of job many HR leaders would love to have and that I was lucky to find. Here’s how I landed it.
Toward the end of 2008, I had a lunch scheduled with a longtime friend of mine who works for a large recruiting organization. When I showed up to lunch, there was another person there with my friend who I didn’t know. Turns out, he was a recruiter who worked with her. He had just taken on a new executive search with a client that my friend thought I might be a good candidate for. She had invited him to lunch so that he and I could meet one another. Ultimately, he presented me as a candidate to his client for their open position.
Through the interview process, it became very evident that my years of HR experience was less than most of the other candidates for the job but that I was much more highly networked than the others. During the interview process, the CEO of company that I formerly worked for made an unsolicited reference call to the CEO who I was hoping to go to work for. He made this call due to the relationship he and I shared. To make a long story short, I got the job. In my final interview with my new boss, she shared with me that while I didn’t have the years of technical HR experience that some of the other candidates possessed, they had chosen me because they felt that I had such a strong network that I could pick up the phone at any time and find out whatever I didn’t know through my connectionss. Additionally, they felt that my sales background and relationship skills would enable me to build the internal network that would be needed to transform the organization’s perception of human resources. It wasn’t what I knew about HR that got me the job, it was my social capital and relationship skills that put me over the top.
In the end, it was my social capital that introduced me to the opportunity and my social capital that closed the deal. I could share dozens of stories about how social capital has helped me to be effective just in the past year. I hope that this story illustrates how relationships can create value and help you achieve your goals.
Joe, any good experiences or stories to share about the role social capital played for you last year?
In my next post, I’ll propose some key ways that social capital is important to the HR leader for you to react and add to.
Until then . . .


  1. Jason,
    I wonder how a fresh graduate can land a job especially when he or she will be competing against those who are very experienced.

    To what extent can social capital help?

  2. Joe, super post. Ron Burt has an amazing course he teaches for the Chicago Booth Exec MBA that touches upon Social Capital as a strategic differentiator.
    In hiring you based upon another CEO's reference, he was investigating more than purely your social capital, however you are correct that social capital is the key to success today. (Note that we must be careful assuming the architecting of 'external' social capital can be duplicated internally. I have some some professionals who build immense external capital, but little to no social capital within their organizations . . . )
    The higher you progress up the corporate food chain, the more you run into superb 'human capital'. Everyone is 'talented' at the VP level and up, so to speak. The differentiator is your ability to develop the social capital necessary to get things done. Getting things done is about more than your individual ability, or your own personal 'human capital'. Like your partner here, Joe, I also learned this at a very young age in the U.S Marines 🙂
    It's truly a small world!
    P.S. Please check out a post I wrote on my blog for the Carnival of HR on social capital as well –, titled "Social Capital" (Note: Sorry, but your dialogue box here doesn't allow me to paste).
    Let's discuss social capital on the phone if you have time. Feel free to drop me a line at jl(@)

  3. i know i was intrigued to hear from you on this topic. well before the age of social media, social capital was the way things got done. i don't think that's changed a bit, though how we build our social capital and who we can build it with has now changed immensely. looking forward to part 2….


  4. Nice to see HR talking about Social Capital and not just Human Capital — both need to be developed!

    I started mapping social capital for my employer TRW in the early 90s when I was an HR manager there. Here are a couple of articles on social capital and HR…


  5. Great comments, thanks for reading and for jumping into the conversation!

    I think that someone just leaving college can have a great deal of social capital, just as someone that is 15 or 20 years into their career can have zero social capital…its not about time or even the number of people that you "bump into" …rather it is about the network that you intentionally build and care for. I know college students and college graduates that have done a great job of reaching out and network not only with their peers, but also with faculty and with business people through networking events, internships, and social media tools.

    Hi Josh, thanks for sharing that info, I really enjoyed your social capital post. What did you do in the Corps?

    Thanks Fran, we both appreciate the ongoing interaction with you and hope to meet you someday! In person!

    Thanks for the comments and info Valdis, I have been an admirer of your work for several years and it is very cool to see your comment here. A number of years ago I had some conversations with June Holley, which led me to your work and I appreciated everything of yours that I have come across. Thanks for sharing those links.

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