We’ve all heard that it’s not “what” you know, but “who” you know that determines your career success. This statement is often met with grudging agreement and cynicism, especially by those who want to attribute their apparent lack of success to something other than their own effort and results.

So does the quality of your work matter? Of course. However, if you’re of the mindset that “my work should speak for itself”, then you may need to ask: what is your work saying about you? Even if your work is of very high quality, is this enough to ensure your success?

For most of us, other people make the decisions about our performance review ratings, compensation, readiness for promotion, and work assignments. Therefore, strong relationships that are supportive of our efforts are important, too.

For sake of this article, we’ll define career success as upward mobility (i.e. promotional opportunities), which I fully understand to be a very narrow interpretation. However, the factors discussed here will enable a broad range of successful career options.

In a conversation with a colleague the other day, we were discussing what it takes to “get ahead” and he shared with me the following formula, which had caused quite a bit of debate within his organization, especially outside the U.S.

The formula is as follows:

Hard Work—10%. By hard work, he was referring to having the appropriate skill set, knowledge and experience to accomplish the work, getting work done on (or ahead of) schedule, exhibiting a willingness to put in extra hours when needed, being reliable, efficient and producing work of high quality. Of course, working hard on something that no one cares about will be a problem. The hard work needs to be focused on things that matter to the organization. Being creative, innovative and increasingly productive in how you go about the work qualify as part of this category too.

Image—30%. Image refers to how others see you, both in terms of visual impression and emotional impression. Image includes how you groom, dress, speak, behave, and respond to others both in verbal and non-verbal ways. Characteristics such as confidence, poise, use of gestures, eye contact, and mannerisms would all fit into this category. Think about people that make a positive impression on you and what goes into your impression.

Exposure—60%. Another term for exposure would be visibility.  Exposure refers to your business relationships and recognition—who knows you, knows about you, including those who can speak about the quality of your work, and your importance to the organization. Exposure and visibility take into consideration the extent of both internal and external relationships, and their breadth and depth. Nurturing those relationships for the long-term benefit of both parties is critical for this exposure factor to be effective.

While the above formula is simplistic and seems to support the “who you know” argument, it is a place to start. Those who put all their focus into hard work but don’t build relationships or care about their image will find their success limited, and those who “schmooze” all the time, focus solely on image and produce few results will sooner or later be discovered as well.

Certainly, geographical and organizational cultural considerations will make a difference in how these factors are weighted and applied. My experience leads me to believe that the relative importance (and percentage) attributed to each factor will change as one moves up the ladder—hard (results-driven) work and the credibility that comes with it will provide the bulk of early career success. Later in one’s career, the ability to convey the appropriate image and build strong relationships (in addition to having a reputation for high quality work) will result in broader influence and impact – just what we’d expect from a more senior, experienced person.

Answering my own initial question: Yes, I believe these three factors can and will influence your career success. The key is to figure out the right combination of the three for your circumstances. What do you think? What percentage would you apply to each? What factors would you add?