The thought of reconnecting with people with whom you've fallen out of touch may feel uncomfortable, but reestablishing old contacts is part of building professional relationships and can be very rewarding.
Old connections can play a critical role, whether someone is looking to reenter the workforce, advance their career, or enter a new field, said Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch. The U.S.-based company works globally to connect employers with qualified professionals returning from career breaks, which have become increasingly common during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cohen said there's no need to be nervous when reaching out to old contacts.
"People are often afraid to get in touch with someone from the past because they're worried that person won't remember them or will get upset that they didn't reach out sooner," she said. But really, what is there to lose? In most cases, people are delighted to reconnect, especially if you reach out in a nonopportunistic way, she added.
Reconnecting with people can be rewarding, said Michelle Tillis Lederman, CEO of Executive Essentials and the author of The Connector's Advantage, a book about building stronger relationships and better workplaces. "Pretty much anything you want to accomplish — a new job, a promotion, a new client — will all come faster, easier, and with better results when accomplished through connections," she said.
5 strategies to reconnect with people
If you're considering reviving professional relationships, try these tips:
Be intentional and make it a habit. You should start networking before you're in a place of need, said Sara McCord, founder and CEO of Sara McCord Communications. "If you wait until you get laid off and need a job, it'll show in your networking efforts," said McCord, who lives in Maryland. She recommended blocking off some time in your calendar each week to reach out to a few people, including old friends or colleagues.
Lederman said that if someone pops into her head more than once, she adds them to her calendar, then follows up with an email, text, call, or social media post. It doesn't take a ton of time to reestablish or preserve a good relationship, she said. "There are plenty of people who I only talk to once a year who I could call on for help at any point."
McCord and Lederman agreed that it's important to be intentional about who you're contacting and not to expect immediate results. It's not about collecting relationships, Lederman said, but rather about building mutually beneficial friendships with people you're genuinely interested in knowing.
"You never know who someone is connected to … who their neighbor is or who they went to camp with," she said. "When you build real relationships, the results will follow."
Use social media. LinkedIn and other platforms make it much easier to reconnect with old colleagues and friends. Not only can LinkedIn help you find people with whom you've lost touch, but the platform also provides an easy way to get back on their radar with a comment, a like, or a connection request, Cohen said.
While networking communications over social media should be friendly and not overly formal, it's important to remember that every outreach is part of your personal brand, McCord said. When contacting an old acquaintance, don't be overly cheeky, chipper, or snarky if someone doesn't respond, she said.
"Online is real life. Even if you're reconnecting digitally, never say something you wouldn't say in person," she said.
Keep it light. Your first outreach to an old friend or colleague shouldn't contain a big ask, Cohen, McCord, and Lederman said. "Give a reason for your message, but make it light," Lederman said. "Maybe it's, 'I see you're working for this type of organization, and I'd love to pick your brain about the experience.'" Most people love to feel valuable, and if you're not asking for a lot, responses are generally positive, she said.
At the same time, you should avoid asks that might put your rekindled relationships at risk, she noted.
"Make it as easy to say no as it is to say yes," Lederman said. One strategy she shared is the shrinking ask, which offsets any potential awkwardness by giving your old connection an easy out. It might look like this: "I'd love to grab coffee, hop on a Zoom call, or if you could just connect me with someone else at your firm, I would appreciate it."
The beginning of the year is an excellent time to reach out to former colleagues, McCord said, because it's normal to receive cards and greetings out of the blue this time of year.
Look for ways to help others. We often think about networking as a tool to advance our own career, but the best connectors also look for ways to add value to their relationships, Lederman said.
You don't have to offer anything major to make an impact — for example, sharing a relevant article can show a former colleague you were thinking of them. "In your first conversation, your job shouldn't be figuring out how someone can help you but how you can help them," Lederman said. "That's how you get a second conversation."
Set reasonable expectations. Networking with former colleagues, friends, or classmates can be a numbers game. Every connection isn't going to turn into a new client or job opportunity, but you never know which ones might, Cohen said.
That's why it's important to have lots of conversations in order to yield the few that can make a difference. "It can take some of the pressure off to understand that this is a long process," she said.
— Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Florida. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.