If you’re a professional who has suddenly found yourself on the hunt for a new job, after years of stable employment, there’s a good chance that a major realization is going to hit you at some point. When you discover just how many jobs have gone “underground” in today’s market, and how instrumental personal relationships are in generating interviews, you’re likely going to say to yourself “Gulp! Why did I not keep in better touch with all the people I’ve met and worked with over the years, so that I could now reach out and ask them for help without it feeling so icky and awkward?”
Sound at all familiar? If so, take heart. Almost every job hunter I know goes through this phase. And these concerns are definitely real ones, since it can be a major challenge to try and rebuild your circle of relationships when you’re suddenly between jobs, needing a helping hand. As Keith Ferazzi puts it, author of the best-selling networking book Never Eat Alone: “I can’t tell you how many times a friend has called me and said ‘Keith, I just became unemployed. I need to start networking, will you teach me how? My answer: ‘No. no. no. You need to start job hunting! You should have been building relationships for the past 5 or 10 years, so now that you need a job, you could make 20 calls and have 5 job offers waiting for you in a week…’”
In fact, in validation of this frequent phenomenon, I know quite a few well-connected folks around town who gently joke, behind the scenes, that the moment they get a call from somebody they haven’t talked with for over a year, they assume the person must be on the hunt for a new opportunity — and about to hit them up with the “hey old buddy, old pal” routine. So yes, we all deserve to wallow in shame if we’ve practiced poor networking habits over the years and haven’t kept in regular touch with various acquaintances.
And yet, there’s hope. Even if you’ve let a relationship lapse to an unfortunate degree, there are several effective and diplomatic ways you can go about trying to resuscitate it — which, executed properly, might allow you to get back in peoples’ good graces without coming off as an inconsiderate sleazebag. Consider these possible strategies…
1) The “Reference Request” Technique: If you worked with somebody who was in a position to observe the quality of your work (e.g. supervisor, vendor, customer, or colleague), one quick and fairly painless way to enlist their aid is to contact them and ask if they’d be willing to be a reference. Tell them that you’re currently on the hunt for a new assignment, have been asked to provide some references related to your time back at XYZ Company, and as a result, were hoping they’d be willing to share a few positive remarks, if contacted. This is a pretty straightforward and understandable request to make, given how thorough employers are in vetting applicants these days, and will usually be perceived as a very legitimate reason for re-establishing contact.
2) The “Quick Feedback” Technique: Another simple test-the-waters approach you can try, when seeking to connect with a long-lost colleague, is to seek out their feedback on a particular issue you know they’re an expert on or have a passion around. Let’s say you used to work with a woman named Maria who was well-connected in the local aerospace community. You could perhaps e-mail her and ask something quick like “Hi Maria! It’s been ages since we last chatted — hope you’ve been well all these years — and there’s a quick question I wanted to run by you, if you had a moment. I’m currently in discussions with Acme Aerospace about a potential assignment and think I recall you having had some dealings with them in the past. Any thoughts on the organization, good or bad, you’d be willing to share? This strategy gives you a solid “cover story” for reestablishing contact and they’ll probably feel good knowing there’s something specific they can help with, versus getting hit up with a more ambiguous networking request.
3) The “Blame LinkedIn” Technique: One of my personal favorites. Given the prevalence of social media sites these days, such as LinkedIn, one can usually rekindle an old relationship by simply looking the person in question up on the system, inviting them to connect, and adding a note like “Hi John! Long time, no talk, but I just saw your name pop up on LinkedIn and thought I’d reach out and see if you wanted to connect!” At this point, you might not actually ask for any specific help from the person, but they’ll usually follow up by asking you how you’ve been and what you’re up to these days, at which point you can fill them in on your situation and see if they express any willingness to lend a helping hand.
4) The “Safety in Numbers” Technique: In many cases, I encourage my clients to kick their job search efforts off (if their situation isn’t confidential) by sending a one-time e-mail out to everybody they know, using the BCC: address field, where they update everybody about their latest career developments and where they could use some help. If you choose to do this (see previous article here) you can always consider adding the e-mail addresses of some people you haven’t seen in a few years, just to see if they end up responding. If they do, you’ll know you’re back on solid footing with them, and if they don’t, well, you’ll have a pretty good inkling of where the relationship stands. In the vast majority of cases, though, my clients are pleasantly surprised by how many positive responses they get and how successful this technique can be in renewing ties with prior acquaintances.
5) The “Mea Culpa” Technique: Last but not least, if you’re trying to rebuild ties with a few folks whom you haven’t seen for many years, sometimes it’s best to just be totally transparent. Contact them, apologize profusely for not having been a better correspondent, and tell them they’re under no obligation to help — but that you’ve found yourself between jobs and are hoping to ask them for a favor. Most people are pretty forgiving if you don’t try to dodge the issue and just come clean, right up front, admitting your embarrassment around not having done a better job of keeping in touch. In fact, some of them are probably feeling secretly guilty, themselves, for letting the relationship go fallow, and will be glad you made the first move to reestablish contact, no matter what the circumstances may be.
So there you have it. Five strategies you can use to minimize the awkwardness involved in rekindling an old relationship you’ve let lapse. I’ve used a number of them over the years to good effect, myself, and if you have any other suggestions to offer that might assist people with this common networking challenge, please don’t hesitate to route them along!