70% of jobs (or more) are never published. Many roles are filled thanks to networking. Freelance consultants find 40% of their clients through their professional network. Having a strong network can sustain a consultant for 3-5 years without having to do any other marketing efforts. Our network is one of our biggest career assets yet it's also one that's most easily neglected.
We all get busy, overly focused on our career and lose touch with former colleagues and others in our industry. Even if we try, keeping up your network can take real effort.
Following a period heavy work and a bout of severe burnout, a client recently found themselves in this position. They needed to find more freelance work or even a job but were stuck in how to reconnect without being awkward or without feeling like they were using people.
My client isn’t unusual. It happens to most of us at once time or another.
You get busy. You put your head down focusing on the work. Suddenly you look up and it’s been months or even years since you’ve connected with former colleagues, industry peers and others you’ve met along your professional path. The problem is that you really could use your network to help you find a job or promote your work.
So you’ve lost your network, but want to get back in touch. Now what?
Above all, the worst thing to do is nothing. Your professional network can help you feel less alone, identify opportunities and provide you with ways to give back to others. Don’t let the passage of time and lack of contact shame you into staying disconnected. The very best thing you can do is begin to rebuild your connections.
How to reconnect
Getting back in touch with dusty connections can be like hard booting your computer. It can take a while to get restarted and you don't want to overwhelm it while it's rebooting. Reconnecting takes finesse.
A former colleague suddenly reached out to me after more than a 10 year absence. They acknowledged that it had been long and even admitted they were terrible with keeping in touch on LinkedIn (our primary communication channel). But the rest of the message was one-sided and promotional. The worst part? They automatically added me to their newsletter without my permission. This is not only unprofessional, it's illegal.
As you can imagine, this didn’t make me want to reconnect. Instead, I unsubscribed and haven’t reached out since.
Reconnecting with old colleagues after a lengthy absence can be successful though. For instance, one of my clients was looking for a job again after being in the same job for several years. To warm up his stone cold network he started by reaching out to a few contacts, checking in to see what was new with them. Rather than make a big ask, at the end of his friendly message he made a small ask to endorse him for a particular skill on LinkedIn. He also asked how he could be useful to them. By focusing on the other person first, he showed interest in the relationship and demonstrated generous behavior. His effort paid off: many endorsed him for those skills and more. One of his former colleagues even sent him a job lead.
First re-establish the connection. Ask how for an update on what's new in their world. Focusing on the relationship will build trust that it’s reciprocal or that you at least care about the other person. Don’t shy away from acknowledging the length of time between the contact. Pretending that no time has passed or that it isn’t unusual for you to be in touch is disingenuous. While you want to acknowledge it, a long story or explanation isn’t needed.
Always remember, relationships first, career second. When you put the people first, the jobs, leads, etc. have a way of finding you more easily.
How to ask
After a long period of silence, sending an impersonal note asking for someone to get you an interview, send clients your way or other large professional favors isn’t likely going to be successful. It’s too big of an ask and likely to make you look selfish. You look more like a taker than a giver. (If you want to read more about giving and taking, an excellent book is Give and Take by Adam Grant.)
I got an impersonal email like this after a decade's absence. The letter started with him hoping I remembered him and how we met. Self-employed, he share several paragraphs of extremely detailed information about his services. He ended the dense page-long letter with the following:
"So please look at the attached email, copy whichever option you like, and forward to 10 people that you know. You can post on social media if you want, but a direct email or other direct referral sinks deeper.”
I don’t mind the ask. If I can connect folks with a valuable service from a high quality professional I’m all for it. The problem was the approach. He didn't ask how I was or what I was up to. And he had the perfect opportunity when he mentioned the length of time it’d been since we were in contact. Also? His ask was way too big, in general and for the current state of our relationship.
Let’s contrast that with the approach of another person in my network.
After working on a number of projects together, we’d been out of touch for the past couple of years. He too was looking to reconnect and, had a specific favor in mind. But first, he wrote at length about the impact one of my articles had on him. He demonstrated that he was paying attention to me and my work. When his small ask for a testimonial came, I immediately responded.
When asking, make the ask as small and concrete as possible. Make it easy for the other person to support you.
One more way to reactivate your network
Another way to wake up a long dormant network is to reach out and ask how you can help them. By giving value first, you engender a good feeling a sense of trust. Giving to others has the hidden benefit of making you feel better too. Do this before you need a favor. And be genuine about it. When you genuinely care about supporting others, it has a way of coming back to you.
That's how you activate your network without burning any all important bridges.
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