How do I network without coming across as a giant jerk/opportunist?
June 19, 2015 7:13 AM   Subscribe

A few of my former colleagues would be very good people to network with. The only problem is that there a few of them I haven't spoken to in years (as in, more than ten years in one case). Is there a way to get in touch with people via a networking email that won't make me seem like a stalker or a blatant opportunist?

For reasons beyond the scope of this question, I'm going to have to think about moving up or on from my current job, one of the two, within the next two years or so. For that reason, I'm really starting to focus on doing what I can do to land softly and well; obviously, reaching out to former colleagues is a very good way to do that, and some of them are fairly high-ranking and influential. the question I have, specifically, is how to do that without coming across as annoying, as in "Hi, Ted! I haven't spoken to you in a decade, but now that I saw your name in the paper, I'd love to get reacquainted!"

This question came up for me recently because of names I saw in the papers. When I worked as an associate at a law firm from 1997 through 1999, there was another associate who sat in the next office; we eventually became fairly friendly at work, although not outside. I left the firm, and in 2004, he made partner there. I sent him a letter (not an email) saying, basically, "Hey, I just saw that you made partner! That's great! Nice to see one of the good ones get ahead for a change. I'd love to catch up over a beer some day soon." He never responded, and that was that. A few days ago, I saw his name in the local law journal; he's just received a high-profile appointment somewhere else (not at that firm).

The other instance is similar; someone who used to work at my current workplace moved somewhere else kind of in the same organization, but in a different office. (I'm deliberately being vague here, sorry.) He was theoretically one of my bosses, but we got along very well and I think he liked me. His name was also in the paper the other day for a fairly high-profile reason, and I thought, "Hey, I should really drop Bob a line." But I was stuck on how to do it. (In this case, it's only been a year or two since I saw the person.)

So the question becomes how to do that. I don't want to seem like I'm groveling for attention, obviously, but I also think it would be foolish to not work connections where I have them. How would I best go about wording emails to these people without looking like, well, kind of an ass? (I'm assuming emails would be appropriate -- can't see why they wouldn't be.)

Throwaway email, if you like:
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
A friend was on the other end of this recently-- someone she hadn't heard from in over a decade called and immediately started pitching his business. She ended up hanging up on him. So, don't do that.

I'd say stick with email or another public-facing means of contact ("how did you get this number" is not a question anyone likes to have to ask or answer) and keep it low key. Your "I'd love to catch up over lunch some day soon" is a great approach. If they don't respond, respect that and don't push the issue. People can't possibly keep up with everyone they've ever met or worked with, so don't take it personally if they don't get back to you. Good luck!
posted by phooky at 7:26 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

The trick is having some other reason to get in touch with these people. Your "in" is that you've seen something recently published that jogged your memory or whatever; your reason for seeing them is that, oh, hey, I'm in the area for a depo or meeting a client or whatever, want to grab lunch?
posted by resurrexit at 7:27 AM on June 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

Make it about them. Drop Bob an email that says something like, "Hey Bob, How have you been? All well here. I just thought I would drop you a line as I saw your name in the local journal regarding that new promotion. Congratulations. I would love to get together one day soon and hear all about it."
posted by AugustWest at 7:31 AM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Your email would probably work fine for the person you haven't seen in only a year or two.

In general, though, the trick to networking is to be in touch with people *before* they have their big success and their name in the paper, because that is the moment when all kinds of social climbers and users reach out, and you don't want to be one of them. If you're not maintaining a social connection over the course of a decade, you're basically just a stranger at that point. (FWIW, I'd respond to an email like that from someone I hadn't seen since 2005 with the same intensity and tenor as those "You don't know me but let's have coffee so I can pick your brain" kinds of emails.) People can tell when you want something from them.

So don't want something from people. You want to use the power of networking, reach out to lots and lots of people you haven't heard from in a little while, who haven't had something big happen recently: "Hey, I was just thinking about you, let's catch up sometime." Put lots of time and energy into creating and also maintaining positive social ties. Go to professional meetings or conventions. Organize group drinks or dinners. Actively work at it, because if you're not working at it, eventually the relationship isn't there.

And don't focus all of your networking efforts up the chain, either. Reach out to people further down the ladder than you. Introduce them around, give good advice, be friendly and welcoming. The way to make networking not-gross is to frame it as making lots of friends and then going out of your way to do favors for THEM, not leveraging relationships for your advantage. And once you're everybody's good friend, hey, people like to help the people they like, right?
posted by Andrhia at 7:43 AM on June 19, 2015 [13 favorites]

Are you on LinkedIn? Are they? Great way to soft network with people over the next two years while you position yourself to move jobs. As people post their new job updates, you congratulate them. If they are heavy LinkedIn users who post stuff, you can comment on it etc etc.

When you first connect, it might be a chance to drop them a note about a possible catch up.. But you know, I wouldn't want to catch up if I thought you were fishing for a job without being upfront. If you said "hey, wondering if we can catch up for a coffee as I am looking to shift jobs and wanted to pick your brain", I personally prefer that.
posted by AnnaRat at 7:45 AM on June 19, 2015 [7 favorites]

I agree that LinkedIn is a great way to do this. Post the article on your timeline and tag the person (if you're connected) with a "Congratulations!"
posted by xingcat at 8:05 AM on June 19, 2015

The best advice I ignored (to my own detriment) was from an old timer at a firm where we both worked and the firm was closing. He said, "Kid, keep your network hot." Andrhia above is right.
posted by AugustWest at 8:22 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

"The trick is having some other reason to get in touch with these people."

Huh, I don't know, maybe it depends how you go about it. But for me, the most awkward would be if you initially expressed interest in reviving a friendship and then followed up soon after with job-seeking questions. (Uh, so do does that mean you still want to do social thing X that we talked about, or is that just something you're willing to endure to get to the business part of the discussion?)

So I'd go for the more direct approach ("I need to move on from my current position, let me know if you're free some time to offer some advice"). They may not have the time, but as long as you take no (or no response) for an answer, I can't see how you're being a jerk for asking.
posted by bfields at 8:32 AM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think a lot of people misunderstand how networking works. It's not getting in touch with a long-lost coworker only when you need a job; it's STAYING in touch with people over the long term. If you haven't talked to them in a decade they're not in your network anymore. Sorry.
posted by MsMolly at 8:33 AM on June 19, 2015 [11 favorites]

Yes, what Andrhia said about giving into the network, not just taking. And what AnnaRat and bfields said about being up-front when you do need more immediate help. Nothing like setting aside rare free time for shared leisure activity with long-term interesting-enough acquaintances only to be opportunistically pounced on at first opening.

Also, don't be dismissive of seemingly less-than-prime contacts or opportunities they may offer. You have to prove you can show up and not embarrass them, and preferably make them look good. Follow through, see what you can give. Stay around. Dropping contact when you don't immediately get what you want is a good way to freeze yourself out of further contact with them.

And let's say someone has gotten you jobs, helped you with visa details, etc over years, and other than doing a reasonably decent job therefore not embarrassing them, you haven't ever been in a position to contribute to their network professionally. Come up with something practical or otherwise you can do for them or someone they're helping.
posted by wonton endangerment at 9:44 AM on June 19, 2015

"The trick is having some other reason to get in touch with these people."

Like bfields, I think this is not only unnecessary, but also puts you at risk of seeming disingenuous. I would say (via email) something about "reassessing my career direction" or "considering making some long-term changes" and ask for some time so that I could pick their brain.

As mentioned above, people actually like to be asked for advice (assuming the request is sincere, they have the time, and other common sense caveats). I think you will get a much better response to this straight-forward request than to some out-of-the-blue "I was just thinking about you - let's get together and catch up" invitation.

Re "networking is about paying into the system": have you been helping others along the way? If so, you're "paid in". Informal professional networks are not closed systems.

Re who is or isn't in "your network": there aren't enough hours in the day for everyone to stay in touch with all the work-related contacts they make in the course of their career. Nor is there a need to do so - these are professional relationships (i.e., not friends/family) and there relevance is likely to rise and fall over the years.
posted by she's not there at 10:41 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I recently attempted doing this. I emailed or attempted to connect via linkedin with people I worked with ten years ago and had great relationships at the time. I got one reply back and they seemed like didn't even remember me. Just setting expectations.

Although what the hell, you can also try it and see if you have better luck.
posted by gregjunior at 10:57 AM on June 19, 2015

I would be straightforward about your goals and why you are reaching out to them.

"I noticed that you're doing a lot better than me, and was hoping we could meet up and chat. I'm just looking to put my situation in perspective and maybe get a little career advice. Can I buy a couple hours of your time with dinner and drinks?"

If you come across as humble and respectful of their time, they're more likely to respond favorably. And as long as you continue to respect their time, they are less likely to think of you as a pest and more likely to keep you in the loop.
posted by Anoplura at 7:22 PM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

« Older Starting a new television production company...on...   |   removing plastic goo from tile floor Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.