7.1 Introduction

Recently more scholars are seeking to illuminate the mechanisms of the intergenerational upward mobility of descendants of guest-worker migrants in Europe. What often triggers scholars’ attention is the question how they made it against all odds. Their parents have a migrant background, low-levels of education and low socio-economic status. They grew up in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and attended schools with high numbers of pupils with educational difficulties. How have they been able to achieve upward mobility from this disadvantaged position? The majority of these studies have focused on educational careers, concentrating on individual characteristics (see e.g. Andriessen et al., 2006; Van Praag et al., 2016), intra- and extra-family resources (see e.g. Keskiner, 2015; Legewie, 2015; Rezai et al., 2015) and contextual factors (see e.g. Crul & Schneider, 2010; Schnell et al., 2013). Now that the descendants of guest-worker migrants in Europe are becoming older, besides their educational careers, we can observe their gradual advancement on the labour market. Though they lag behind the majority group, compared to the immigrant generation the second generation is making substantial advances. For example highly-skilled second generation professionals are beginning to occupy well-paid and socially prestigious occupations in the US (Alba & Foner, 2015) and in Europe (Crul et al., 2017; Schneider & Lang, 2014; Keskiner & Crul, 2017).

The current chapter focuses on descendants of Turkish migrants who occupy top positions in the field of professional business services in the Netherlands. Due to their senior positions in corporate business sector, such as being CEOs or CFOs of multinational corporations, we name this group business elites (Harvey & Maclean, 2008). The chapter centres on how they made use of their social networks to advance their careers. Hence, the focus does not lie on labour market entry, but on career mobility. The literature on career mobility of highly-skilled professionals often emphasizes the importance of social networks for professional advancement (Harvey & Maclean, 2008; Lin, 1999; Podolny & Baron, 1997; Raider & Burt, 1996; Seibert et al., 2001). Scholars observe that social networks provide benefits such as access to information and financial or material resources (Lin, 1999; Harvey & Maclean, 2008; Raider & Burt, 1996; Ryan, 2011, 2016). The importance of mentoring and more specifically of career sponsorship for occupational mobility has also been demonstrated (Podolny & Baron, 1997; Seibert et al., 2001). Among the corporate business elite, social networks have been historically studied as corporate board interlocks, where directors or managers sit on multiple boards and form an enclosed old boys’ network (Heemskerk & Fennema, 2009). Hence reaching the top positions can be extremely difficult for the upwardly mobile. In fact, studies on upward career mobility focusing on highly-skilled ethnic minorities stress that compared to the dominant group they are less able to use social relations for enhancing their careers (Friedman & Krackhardt, 1997; Light & Gold, 2000), particularly if they have been raised in poor households and communities (Agius Vallejo, 2012; see also Neckerman et al., 1999). Other scholars have tried to unravel how descendants of migrants succeeded at putting their social networks to good use (Rezai, 2017; Keskiner & Crul, 2017). Rezai (2017) showed how professionally successful descendants of migrants in Europe had significant others within their social networks who positively influenced their occupational careers (see also Morando, 2013). Keskiner and Crul (2017) uncovered how developing forms of capital, such as cultural and social capital, assisted descendants of migrants in accessing leadership positions.

Possessing a social network, even one consisting of ties that can be instrumental for labour market success, does not guarantee the mobilization of social capital (Smith, 2005). One needs to also activate social capital. Lin (1999) and Smith (2005) make the distinction between access to social capital and activation of social capital. Smith (2005) observes how (non)activation of social capital occurs for the African-American working class. Inspired by her approach, in the current article we aim to show how the successful second generation activates their social capital to enhance their upward mobility. We pose the central question: What mechanisms of social capital activation do we identify in the professional careers of Turkish-Dutch highly distinguished professionals? This chapter draws the link between professional characteristics and social capital activation. It illustrates how the professional characteristics of the descendants of migrants led their network contacts to appropriate their resources in the benefit of the careers of the social climbers. By gaining insight in the social capital activation of social climbers, this study sheds light on the mechanisms of their social mobility.

7.2 Theoretical Framework

In his seminal review of the concept of social capital Portes (1998) considers Bourdieu’s analysis to be theoretically the most refined. Bourdieu (1986) defines social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (p. 11). In the current chapter we follow Bourdieu’s description, since it underlines “the facilitation of [social capital] activation” (Smith, 2005, p. 5), and our principal interest lies in how one can activate these ‘actual or potential resources’ via possessing durable networks. Lin (1999) makes a convincing distinction between the access to and the mobilization of social capital. The access to social capital entails the resources an individual has access to through social connections. Such studies focus on network structure and composition (Smith, 2005; see e.g. Boxman et al., 1991; Burt, 1992; Granovetter, 1985, see the introduction chapter by Ryan et al. for a detailed discussion). The mobilization of social capital refers to the use of social contacts’ status and resources provided by contacts (Lin, 1999). Smith (2005) too makes a distinction between the access and mobilization of social capital, which she calls the activation of social capital. She defines social capital activation as “the point at which [the] resources are shared – when one or more actors provides instrumental or expressive aid to others, beginning or continuing a series of nonnegotiated or reciprocal exchanges” (p. 5). Studies on the activation of social capital focus on network contacts’ resources being used in an instrumental manner, such as for intra-organizational mobility (Smith, 2005; see e.g. De Graaf & Flap, 1988; Marsden & Hurlbert, 1988; Podolny & Baron, 1997). In her detailed US study on the factors that influence decisions of black urban poor to access job-seeking ties, such as friends and relatives, Smith (2005) constructs a multilevel conceptual framework based on social capital theories. Her framework explains social capital activation as a function of individual-level properties such as reputation and status, dyadic properties such as the strength of relationships based on trust and trustworthiness, and properties of the network and community. Smith’s analysis on the urban black poor shows that functioning in an extremely discriminatory labour market, the job seekers’ reputation was of overwhelming importance for network contacts’ decisions on providing assistance. Also significant, though secondary, was the influence of the strength of relationships. Both properties were important because they provided the network contacts knowledge for assessing the influence the job seekers could have on their own reputation and employment prospects, if for example they were going to be employed by the same employer. Even though Smith’s (2005) work concentrated on urban poor, her insight on the role of individual-level properties such as reputation and status inspired the current study. Furthermore, other studies have also documented how the nature of a relationship, be it strong or weak ties (Granovetter, 1985) or the horizontal or vertical ties (Ryan, 2011, 2016) influence the social capital activation. Inspired by Smith’s (2005) approach, we focus on corporate professionals in prestigious positions, and examine which mechanisms played an important role in activating social capital. Clearly those in high-skilled professions find themselves in social networks that have aided them to advance in their careers by giving them access to information and material resources (Harvey & Maclean, 2008; Lin, 1999; Kadushin, 1995; Podolny & Baron, 1997; Raider & Burt, 1996; Seibert et al., 2001). Yet considering the discriminatory and closed nature of social networks at the top, the question remains how do the newcomers to the field mobilize their social networks and turn them into actual or potential resources, hence how do they activate their social capital.

Many studies have pointed to the changing nature of the composition of ‘the elite’ or the high-skilled professionals. Based on her long-term study of the Canadian managerial elite Carroll (2008) argues that the Canadian elite is no longer formed by the old-boys’ networks but that it is diversified with women and ethnic minority groups. Comparing the networking activities among the business elite in France and the UK, Harvey and Maclean (2008) point to a similar diversification as they talk about the “newcomers” who are of non-elite background. Heemskerk and Fennema (2009) attribute the change of the corporate elite in the Netherlands to educational reforms. The aristocracy dominated the boards of large business corporations until well after the Second World War. The majority of this Dutch corporate elite was related through kinship ties and had a strong sense of “we-ness” (Heemskerk & Fennema, 2009, p. 813). Due to education reforms aimed at stimulating social equity in the 1960s and 1970s, higher education became accessible to all social classes (Boekholt & De Booy, 1987). Since the quality and recognition of Dutch pre-university tracks and universities are very comparable, they do not serve as social selection tools in the distinct way of the French grandes ecôles, or the British top male-only public schools (Heemskerk & Fennema, 2009; see also Bourdieu, 1996; Hartmann, 2000; Harvey & Maclean, 2008; Keskiner & Crul, 2017). Heemskerk and Fennema (2009) claim that while the old elite was a status group with a high degree of endogamy and internal traditional linkages, the new corporate elite is ‘a socioeconomic class consisting of successful individuals’. Despite this strong claim, this new elite remains largely white and male as women are much under-represented in top functions (Merens et al., 2011), a fact also true for ethnic minorities (Crul et al., 2017).

While the white old boys’ networks are thinning, discrimination and exclusion in reaching top position persists and social capital continues to be crucial for achieving upward mobility. Hence it becomes a pressing question to scholars how the social climbers activate the social capital in their networks for their career mobility. Looking at social-capital and social-network studies that focus on corporate professionals in prestigious positions, we find that Harvey and Maclean (2008) argue that the networks of the business elite in the UK largely depend on individuals’ social ambition and networking skills. Hartmann (2000) showed that candidates for top executive positions in large enterprises in Germany must meet certain skills. They should know and have internalized dress and behaviour codes, appear self-confident and have a sound general education (see also Friedman, 2013), and have an optimistic attitude and an entrepreneurial way of thinking. Hartmann (2000) also discusses the role of ‘trust’ in recruiting corporate executives, referring to being able to rely on an individual’s absolute discretion and support. The sense of mutual trust, the feeling of communicating on the same wavelength, and having the same frame of reference, makes it possible to view and accept the newcomer as one of their own. ‘Trust’ has also been approached in a different manner by sociologists who theorize on social capital. In his seminal work, Coleman (1988) explains that the trustworthiness of a social structure “means that obligations will be repaid, and the actual extent of obligations held” (p. S102). Portes and Sensenbrenner (1993) use the concept of ‘enforceable trust’ in a similar vein. Individual members comply with group expectations to gain or sustain the reputation that they are reliable, and through this they gain credits to reciprocity. The reciprocal credits will consist either of the donor anticipating utilities from the recipient, or of the donor yielding “status, honor or approval” (Portes, 1998, p. 9) from the collectivity (see also Portes, 1998; Portes & Sensenbrenner, 1993). These are the two consequences of ‘enforceable trust’ which apply when both the recipient and the donor are embedded in a common social structure.

To conclude, certain factors come to the fore in understanding the link between network connections and career mobility. Specific individual characteristics are attributed to the corporate elites, such as reputation, self-assurance, optimism, networking skills and entrepreneurial thinking. Also factors attributable to relationships such as compliance with group expectations trust and reliability shed light on the activation of social capital.

7.3 Research Process

For the current study we made use of interviews conducted within the international ELITES, Pathways to Success project which aimed to gain insight into how the descendants of immigrants accomplish upward mobility in Europe. For the selection of interviewees, we applied an objective way of defining success by using job status as criterion (Crul et al., 2017). Applying the EGP class schema the research team aimed at people working in the top two classes of the 11-class EGP scheme (Erikson & Goldthorpe, 2002).Footnote 1 This means that the participants belong to the most successful group of above-average successful people in society (Crul et al., 2017).

The current article focuses on steep social climbers within the field of professional business services in the Netherlands. The research team conducted 16 interviews with higher-grade professionals, and managers of corporate businesses in the Netherlands (Konyali, 2014, 2017). To be able to scrutinize the steep upward mobility of social climbers who are descendants of immigrants from Turkey we selected the participants who were particularly successful in their career. This resulted in a sub-sample of eight senior managers and executives who encompass the focus of the present article. Five are salaried and work for large enterprises, and three are self-employed. Their ages, at the time of interview, range between 33 and 47 years. Only one of the participants is female, which corresponds with the over-representation of men in high-ranking positions in the field of professional business services in the Netherlands (Crul et al., 2017). They all have obtained a Masters’ degree, which is in great contrast to their parents’ educational level. Compared to their parents they show a steep social mobility (see Table 7.1) (Crul et al., 2017).

Table 7.1 Background information of respondents

The research group developed semi-structured interview protocols consisting of open-ended questions aiming at gaining insight into their educational and professional pathways. Subsequently, the questions were piloted with a small number of participants who were similar to those who would be interviewed as research participants. Based on the pilot interviews the interview protocols were revised. We transferred the open-ended questions of the interview protocol for the business professionals in the Netherlands into a topic list, since using a topic list creates more flexibility in during the interview.

While our initial aim was to only interview second-generation people, we also interviewed professionals who migrated in their childhood (see Table 7.1). The research team realized soon in the fieldwork that age would make it difficult to find who are in leading positions. Most of the second-generation of Turkish heritage are still quite young which means that they are still in the early stages of their careers. We started the fieldwork in 2013 by making use of our networks and continued with snowball sampling. LinkedIn, a major active business and professional networking website, proved to be especially helpful for snowball methods, and for preparing for interviews since many professionals have detailed CVs on their LinkedIn page. Interviewing higher-educated business professionals in prestigious positions about their occupational careers was hardly a difficult task. They were perceptive, eloquent and sociable. They were very conscious of their “against the odds success” and hence very verbal about their pathway, a common characteristic among elites (Harvey & Maclean, 2008). The interviews took between 1 and 4 hours. Most of the interviews were conducted at the participants’ offices.

After a short introduction, the in-depth interviews with participants were conducted using a topic list. At the end of each interview a form with background information was filled in. When time was lacking the form was sent to the participant by e-mail with the request to fill it in. Informed consent was obtained from all participants. The interviews were voice recorded and transcribed. Interviews were conducted in Dutch. The analysis of the data was conducted in Dutch and during the writing phase the quotations were translated to English. For the analysis Atlas.ti software was used.

We applied the issue-focused analysis method of Robert S. Weiss (1994) to analyse the pathways of the participants and to comprehend the mechanisms of upward career mobility in which social capital played a role. The mechanisms of social capital activation that emerged from the data have been inductively conceptualized.

7.4 Mechanisms of Social Capital Activation

  • Interviewer: And what would you say is the biggest barrier for professional, successful people with a migrant background?

  • Selim: I think probably the lack of network, most probably. Look, we are always talking about that it’s all about sending job applications – you might find a job opening in de Volkskrant [Dutch national newspaper], and you send in an application - but in my experience, if you don’t have access to certain contacts, it gets complicated.

  • Onur:[I]it can be utterly important that you move outside your own circles and that you move in the circles that society cares about, so instead of being active at the local mosque - that’s nice - but then you should also be active at the Cancer Foundation or something similar, so it can be that simple. So if you do volunteer work, don’t do it just in your own corner. And that is a way of thinking, and that should be your approach to life. In this way you make [new] friends and you go to [new] places […] and you don’t just go to your friends and drink tea, no, you go to the pub with your colleagues and have a drink there. On Saturdays you go to […] trade meetings, where people who have leading positions come together.

As the above quotes underline and as previous research has illustrated (see e.g. Harvey & Maclean, 2008; Kadushin, 1995; Lin, 1999) network contacts are crucial for accessing top positions. The quotes also point at the exclusionary nature of social networks, hence having “certain contacts” matter as Selim underlines. The participants have reached prestigious positions and have been able to build and maintain a network of valuable connections throughout the years, which only a minority of descendants of migrants manage to do. Nevertheless, having access to a network of influential individuals per se is insufficient for reaping its fruits. It is also important to activate the potential resources linked to a social network (Lin, 1999; Smith, 2005).

In this section the participants’ mechanisms of social capital activation will be unravelled. In the following, we illustrate the individual-level professional characteristics (competence and self-promotion; challenge-driven and optimism; and, soft skills) the participants have in common, which in their perception have helped them to build and maintain a network of valuable connections who acted in the benefit of their professional careers.

7.5 Reliability and Likeability

Based on the analysis we argue that the participants’ individual-level professional characteristics helped them to activate social capital (see Fig. 7.1). The steep social climbers have in common the combination of specific professional characteristics (competence and self-promotion; challenge-driven and optimism; and, soft skills) which together bring about the dyadic characteristics ‘reliability’ and ‘likeability’. Likeability has already been documented as a significant feature in network relations (Ibarra & Deshpande 2004; Ryan & Mulholland, 2014; Shwed & Kalev, 2014). Ibarra and Deshpande (2004) make a distinction between instrumental and psychosocial resources in networks, where instrumental resources refer to “information, influence, and sponsorship” and psychosocial resources include “socialization, mentoring, friendship and identity formation” (p. 4). Clearly a social network tie can have a dyadic function where a mentoring and friendship relation could also result in instrumental outcomes. As Eve (2002) has significantly shown how friendships can serve to link networks of relationships between varying people. Hence in addition to examining resources embedded in the social networks, Ryan and Mulholland (2014) underline the importance of studying the nature of relationships between social network ties as they can embody “friendship, companionship, likeability and identity affirmation” (p. 149).

Fig. 7.1
figure 1

Mechanisms of social capital activation

According to our respondents, recognition of their relevant professional characteristics generates in the perception of the network connections a sense of belief in their qualities, and trust that they will be able to comply with expectations (see also Hartmann, 2000; Portes & Sensenbrenner, 1993). This leads to the characteristic of reliability. The soft skills of the participants result in a form of likeability, which is a sense of congeniality. Both concepts of reliability and likeability have been used previously in the social networks literature (Shwed & Kalev, 2014). In this article we argue that the characteristics of likeability and reliability together pave the ground for converting network connections of our respondents into ambassadors and coaches. These mechanisms are needed for network contacts to be motivated to act as ‘donors’ (Portes, 1998). Hence, in this way the social climbers’ professional characteristics can help to activate social capital.

In the following we have a closer look at what the professional characteristics consist of. While the characteristics of the participants were classified in three categories (competence and self-promotion; challenge-driven and optimism; and, soft skills), they are related to each other, and their strength of activating social capital lies in their combination. The participants possess all categories discussed in this paragraph, however not all participants have all the aspects of the professional characteristics which we explain below.

7.5.1 Competence and Self-Promotion

Having achieved high status positions, the participants have become experts in their field. They stated that they achieved this with their diligence and hard work. Erdem, a senior manager in the field of financial services, explains that he always tries to work longer hours and do his work better than his colleagues. He emphasizes that he puts effort in developing himself, for example by reading in his spare time instead of watching TV.

The participants are not modest (see also Friedman, 2013; Hartmann, 2000). Onur, a senior manager in the energy sector, calls himself “self-assured”. Omer, also a senior manager in the energy sector, describes himself as “a bit presumptuous”. Serhat, who runs his own company in the IT and services field, uses the introduction “[t]hat sounds very arrogant”, and continues by explaining how he possesses the right mentality for becoming successful in any given business. Self-assurance, in some more pronounced than in others, is a characteristic observed in all the participants. And this assists them in promoting their competence, since competence alone is not enough (see Hartmann, 2000). As Erdem says, you need to “show the people around you that you’re the best”. Omer states that it is important to work hard, but it has no use if it goes unnoticed. One needs to “self-promote”, “you work hard, but you also advertise it. You make transparent what you’ve done […] you need to enforce things in life”. Also Cagri, the only female participant and a senior executive in the energy sector, emphasizes the relevance of making one’s capabilities noticed:

Cagri: In my experience, if you are good at what you do, so if you focus in the settings in which you work, if you are confident, if people think ‘wow, she really has something interesting to say!’, then you build credibility and credits amongst the people whom you work with. That interaction is crucial but it really begins with just being good at what you do. […] I have always worked hard for it, whenever I was on a supervisory board, I had something important to say, I would read all the documents, so that is…I think people build respect for you.

In this quote, Cagri draws links between one’s expertise, diligence, hard work, self-assurance, self-promotion, and generating respect, credits and credibility amongst network connections.

7.5.2 Challenge-Driven and Optimism

Being challenge-driven is an aspect that comes to the fore very strongly with the entrepreneurs who were interviewed. Kudret, active in the field of computer software, expresses his “eager[ness]” for challenge and success and states that he “always need to feel: Yes! This is a challenge!”. Onur enjoys diving into solving complex problems for companies, and Serhat’s hands start itching when he finds organisations that function inefficiently. While less pronounced than in the case of the entrepreneurs, the other business professionals also demonstrate being challenge-driven, or as Hartmann (2000, p. 252) explains it for the top executives he studied, they “display a high degree of entrepreneurial thinking”. A need for challenge was the instigator for Cagri’s big career change which entailed parting from the impressive career she had built and its promising prospects: “I am too young to flatline and sponge off what I already know. I still want to learn new things, spread my wings, meet new people.” As we can also see with Erdem, seeking challenges is connected to their ambition for personal development. Erdem explains that he has always had the drive to be the best. When as a young professional Erdem had his first job interview at his current firm, he was asked what position he aspired in 5 years, he replied: “I will become your first Turkish executive in the country!”. The interviewers were very much amused, to which he responded: “Why are you laughing? I am making a very serious statement”. It took him a couple of years longer than the 5 years he had prophesized to make it to a high managerial position. While this shows Erdem’s challenge-driven attitude, it also underlines the discriminatory environment at work and the prejudice professionals of minority background encounter.

Being challenge-driven is related to being optimistic, another characteristic the participants have in common (see also Hartmann, 2000; Kaniel et al., 2010). Grabbing an opportunity when they see it, as Onur explains his career mentality. One of the ways in which Serhat tries to gain clients’ confidence is by taking evident business risks for them, trusting in that it will be reciprocated in the future. This has resulted in several loyal clients. He gives an example of helping out a client who had a shutdown of the billing system during the weekend. Serhat got a team together and made sure the system was up and running by Monday.

Serhat: Do you think that when that person needs something, and I have taken all the risk upon me, to incorporate those people, without contract and without self-interest, that when that person needs something, that he will phone me or someone else? Obvious, right? Seems to me. I could have also said: ‘I need to have financial security first. Flying those people out there, that’s a couple of thousand euros. The risks you take for each day…’ But those people worked two days and everything was fixed. Well, he still tells me: ‘if you hadn’t helped me, I wouldn’t be here anymore’.

Their optimism is marked by buoyancy and perseverance. We can observe Kudret’s resilience in how, after a bankruptcy which resulted into a mental depression, he got back on his feet and built a very successful company. We also observe his perseverance in finding solutions for problems. “It is possible. You just haven’t found the solution yet”, he often tells his employees, urging them to continue looking for a solution. He continues seeking possibilities when others give up.

Kudret:[A]lso in my business life, whenever something negative happens…I just inherited it as stock-in-trade. It’s such a great stock-in-trade! I see it with entrepreneurs when they are confronted with a setback, then they’re destroyed, all is bad, they fall apart, then I say: ‘guys!’ - the strange thing is that when I have to deal with a setback I just get more energy -, and then I say: ‘guys, we’re going to be positive now’. So, I can turn negativity into positivity, and this actually is a really beautiful stock-in-trade that I inherited from my youth.

What Kudret explains as the ability to turn negative experiences into positive energy, could also be interpreted as the urge to prove oneself, which is apparent in the accounts of other participants.Footnote 2

7.5.3 Soft Skills

Several participants talk about the importance of what participants name “soft skills” (Onur) or “EQ”(Emotional Intelligence) (Omer) for accessing distinguished positions such as having the ability to easily establish contacts and to comprehend how to behave with whom (see also Hartmann, 2000; Podolny & Baron, 1997; Raider & Burt, 1996; Ryan & Mulholland, 2014). Omer:

  • Omer: But perhaps also my Fingerspitzengefühl (gut feelin), that I know when I speak to people, how I should speak to that person, and what that person wants to hear. I am pretty good at that. That’s creepy, but…that also plays a role, you need to have a certain EQ next to your IQ.

  • Omer believes this is a beneficial capacity people with a migrant background often possess. Onur links these soft skills to accessing and activating social capital:

  • Onur: Well, you definitely need to have good social skills. It’s not necessarily about being smart […], well, that’s useful and of course it has benefits, but that’s not the decisive part, the decisive part is that you’re able to establish contacts easily, that people like you and have your best interest at heart. […] you just need to have people who introduce you and push you to the front, and once you are there, that they allow you…, that they’re not begrudged about you being there, so to say, that they allow you to stay there. Or even better, that they support you in that position, that they’ve got your back.

Cagri explains how her soft skills and other professional characteristics have played a role in building her network and in activating social capital. She uses the Dutch term “gunfactor”, here translated as ‘grant factor’, which is also referred to by other participants. An individual’s grant factor is best described as a set of factors or conditions that cause actors to sense a combination of congeniality and trust concerning the individual, and to wish her/him well and even to actively support her/him. Transferred to the current study it would be the combination of likeability and reliability the participants bring about amongst their influential network connections which motivates them to support the social climbers in their professional careers, and by doing so to take on the roles of ambassadors and coaches.

Cagri: So I have a feeling that the way in which I relate to people - approachable, open-minded, transparent - and if possible appear as very well-informed, and therefore hard-working – that, I think, has played a role in how my network has developed itself. I think I can say, that I have quite a lot of people who would just take the time to help me with something. A high grant factor. And grant factor you develop by demonstrating expertise and through transparency. Yeah, getting into people’s networks, and that people simply find you pleasant and nice, and competent, and are willing to do something for you.

The ambassadors and coaches apply their informational, material and social resources to contribute to the upward mobility of the business professionals. Hence, in this way the professional characteristics of the social climbers are transferred into social capital.

7.6 Ambassadors and Coaches

Erdem: So now I even have several ambassadors at the level of the Board, and I am very economical with them. Last year, for example, I had a very good offer from the competition and I declined it. You simply cannot compare salary with the network you have, and I especially have that inside the company. I know people at the Board of Directors, whom I visit for a coffee, who want to know how I am, and I must cherish that.

The emphasis on the importance of social capital for professional careers recurs in all the interviews with the business professionals. Such network consciousness among highly skilled professionals has already been documented in previous studies (Ryan & Mulholland, 154). Influential network contacts of the respondents yielded “potential or actual resources” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 11) by playing an important role in intra-firm upward mobility, when changing company, and when making important decisions such as becoming independent or making a career change and sometimes they “opened doors” (Ryan & Mulholland, 2014, p. 155). The qualitative analysis shows that network connections were primarily important in two roles which we define as ambassadors and coaches. Network contacts can take on the role of an ambassador or the role of a coach, or both roles. Below we illustrate ambassadors and coaches as influential network connections who recognize the potential of the social climbers (see also Rezai, 2017; Portes & Fernández-Kelly, 2008). These ‘donors’ (Portes, 1998) have valuable professional knowledge and social resources, and are willing to apply these in the benefit of the career paths of the high achievers (see also De Graaf & Flap, 1988).Selim, a senior executive in the banking sector, introduced the term of ambassador during the interview. When asked what he means with it, he replies: “[t]hat s/he(an ambassador) says that I’m a good lad”. As Selim indicates, the main characteristic of ambassadors is that they recognize the potential of the business professionals and promote them within their networks and thereby are able to open doors for them. Hence, they function as their ambassadors. Like Selim, Erdem, whom we quoted above, has several ambassadors who are influential actors in his firm and promote him within their network. They have proven to be instrumental for his mobility within the firm. Erdem illustrates this with an example. One of his first bosses at the firm didn’t find Erdem to be leadership material. Disagreeing, Erdem left to a different department and became the senior executive of one of the provincial branches. Later on, by chance he became acquainted with one of the Board members at the gym and they hit it off. Erdem:

  • Erdem: [W]hat happens next? I had left him [former boss], because he didn’t want me. […] He [the Board member from the gym] was just doing a regional visit, he would do that once in a while, so I told him: ‘I heard you’ll be in the neighbourhood, come and visit me’. So he came […], we went to see a client together, I gave a presentation [for him] at my office on how I do things, how I see things, what else I wanted to do. That gave him a really good impression. Next, he [the Board member] talks to him [former boss], and he sends me a text message the next day: ‘I’ve heard great things about you from Charles. You can always come back and work for me’. That’s how it works!

  • Interviewer: And ten years later he offers you [your current] job?

  • Erdem: Yeah, funny, right?

Erdem’s professional characteristics of soft skills and self-promotion of his competence are markedly detectable here. Also his optimism is apparent in how despite the setback with his former boss, he continues to accomplish intra-firm mobility. Erdem’s professional characteristics impressed the Board member and generated likeability and reliability. Recognizing Erdem’s talents he promoted him within his network, eventually contributing to his upward mobility.

An ambassador could promote someone out of self-interest, for example to underline his own foresight, as Erdem illustrates: “This man, for example, promoted me very often amongst other people. But it also works the other way around. […] going like: ‘and I knew back then that he was good”. Since Erdem and the ambassador are embedded in a common social structure, the ambassador is able to profit from Erdem’s success, being reciprocated for his efforts with “status, honor and approval” (Portes, 1998, p. 9) by their common network connections.

Looking at the nature of the relationship, coaches are network connections who over time have become reliable confidants. That is their main attribute. Generally, the professionals have built a personal relationship with them and a relationship of trust (see also Podolny & Baron, 1997; Raider & Burt, 1996; Ryan, 2016). In the relationship with coaches the line between professional contacts and friends becomes blurred, and conversations become typically more about personal things and less about work-related matters. The professionals perceive coaches as reliable and trustworthy, and approach them for advice on matters such as important career decisions. Tabib, a CFO in the energy sector, illustrates:

Tabib: I do notice that for example in certain phases of your life, of your career, it is useful to brainstorm together once in a while about: what kind of job do I want next? What direction do I want to take? […] And I still have people like that. A half of dozen people whom you trust, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance without having to immediately…You also really need that, I believe. A number of people who like you and support you. […] who mean well […] if you don’t have that, you have a bit too little reflection. You shouldn’t get a big head, neither underestimate yourself, and…Find the right balance. And if you have someone who says: ‘well, that’s realistic, or well….’ That helps to put it in a certain context, to validate your thoughts. A small network of confidants, that is really very important.

Tabib explains that it is important that the relationship a coach has with one is not primarily “about self-interest, it is about making time and energy for someone without immediately wanting something in return” (Tabib). For approaching someone for career advice it is fundamental to have built “a relation of trust” (Tabib) in order to be able to rely on honesty and discretion (see also Hartmann, 2000). The social climbers rely on the coaches’ judgement because they believe that the coaches have their interest at heart. What is also important for being able to rely on the coaches’ judgement is that they know both the professional field and the social climbers well, which allows them to match the professionals’ properties with the requirements of the field. When Cagri was contemplating on making a big career change, and found herself not being sure what direction to take, she decided to talk to several coaches.

  • Cagri: I then started to approach people in my network very specifically: ‘hey, I am quitting, what I really would like is this but how do I go about it, and how does one get there, and whom should I be talking to? So, I had some really good talks with people who brainstormed with me also to focus my own ideas more precisely…‘the private sector is very large. What do you want? Financial Services? Do you want Aviation? Do you want Services? Do you want Shipping? So which one is it?’ So, while talking, I came up with Energy.

  • Interviewer: were those people who worked in the private sector?

  • Cagri: also, but in any case, people with whom I had built a relationship of trust. So I didn’t just go around talking to people I didn’t know: ‘hey, can I ask you a question?’. But really people from my own network whom throughout the years I had learned to appreciate and whose judgement…of whom I really thought ‘they know me well, they know, perhaps better than myself…they can assess what type of professions would be appropriate for me.

Cagri’s likeability and reliability have helped her to convert influential contacts into coaches who are willing to put time and effort into enhancing her career. In this way she activated her social capital for her own benefit.

The major distinction between the roles of ambassadors and coaches is that while the ambassadors’ actions are limited to promoting the professionals within their networks, the relationship with coaches is more personal and is based on trust. Such trust relationship is also something respondent built over time rather than emerging as trust relations (Ryan, 2016). Ambassadors and coaches also have similarities; they both recognize the potential of the business professionals, and are willing to apply their influential network position in their benefit.

7.7 Conclusion

This article focused on the steep social mobility of descendants of migrants from Turkey who have acquired distinguished positions in the field of professional business services in the Netherlands. It aimed at unravelling their mechanisms of social capital activation, in order to deepen our understanding of the conditions that have to be met for network connections to provide career-mobility assistance. Following Lin (1999) and Smith (2005), it emphasized the importance of distinguishing between the access and the activation of social capital. For attaining career advancement the access to social capital is not enough, but one also needs to activate social capital. The current study contributes to the strand of literature on social capital activation on several levels.

The analysis has shown that the mechanisms of social capital activation consist of individual-level professional characteristics, dyadic characteristics and of the conversion of network connections into donors. We have identified three groups of professional characteristics: competence and self-promotion; challenge-driven and optimism; and, soft skills. The combination of these individual-level professional characteristics generates the characteristics ‘likeability’ and ‘reliability’. We have conceptualized reliability as a sense of belief in the professionals’ capacities, and trust that they will be able to comply with expectations. The soft skills of the participants in particular effectuate ‘likeability’. When influential network connections perceive both likeability and reliability concerning the business professionals, they are motivated to assist them and take on the role of donor, and as a consequence social capital is activated. We observed two types of donors: ‘ambassadors’, who promote the professionals in their networks, and ‘coaches’, with whom the professionals have a relationship of trust and can turn to for advice. In this way the professional characteristics of the social climbers helped them to achieve social capital activation. This article showed the importance of professional characteristics in network connections’ motivation to act as donors and enhance other individuals’ career mobility.

While Smith (2005) has shown how individual-level properties and dyadic characteristics separately influence social capital activation, the current study has observed the relation between such characteristics. It has given insight into the process of the mechanisms of social capital activation. It argued that individual-level characteristics lead to reliability and likeability, which again effectuate network connections to become coaches and ambassadors. Another crucial aspect of the network connections of our respondents is the feature of “reciprocity”, the influential network connections of the participants seem to be motivated more by the prospect of enhancing their own reputation and position. Donors act because they have instrumental expectations, which can be status or approval of the collectivity, such “give and take” behaviour is also previously documented in Ryan and Mulholland (2014, p.156), Donors can also be motivated by the anticipation of utilities from the recipient, which implies the necessity for a higher level of trust and resonates with the conceptualization of the role of coaches in the current article. The question remains, what influences actors to take on one of these roles and not the other. Previous studies have shown how “trust and mutual benefit” were crucial aspects that activated networks (Ryan, 2016); in a similar vein, mutual opportunities could be one explanation for taking up such mentoring roles. Future research should focus on deepening our insight in the motivations of network connections to take on the roles of coaches and ambassadors. A second recommendation for future research is to deepen our understanding of to what extent professional characteristics are applied intentionally in the activation of social capital. Therefore, further studies should not only include the recipients of resources, as in the present study, but also the providers of resources. In another study we have seen that second generation also provide back to the community and become a source of vertical resource (Rezai, 2017; see the chapter by Keskiner and Waldring in this book). Moreover, the current study encompassed a small number of participants. Further qualitative research on the mechanisms of social capital activation as found in the present article, can strengthen the reliability of such findings.

The current chapter deepened our insight into the relation between social capital and career mobility. It shed light on social capital activation by examining the mechanisms of social capital activation and by demonstrating the connections between them. It showed the importance of professional characteristics in network connections’ motivation to act as donors and enhance other individuals’ career mobility.