By Erin Conroy -- AP Business Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — You should've kept in touch with that old colleague, and you never did send a card to your former boss around the holidays. Now you're out of a job or uncertain about your career, and feeling awkward about reaching out.
Career coaches agree that even if reconnecting with stale networking contacts is uncomfortable, it's a vital part of job hunting.
"We often don't realize that we have a treasure trove of relationships we've built over the years, and that when you leave a company, you take the people you've met with you," said Liz Lynch, founder of the Center for Networking Excellence in New York. "It can be the greatest resource we have."
Step 1: Don't Be Shy
Whether you're rebuilding a workplace bond that's faded or digging up the business card of an acquaintance whose face escapes your memory, don't feel guilty. They haven't contacted you either, said Sandra Naiman, an independent career development consultant in Denver.
"Remember that you had a rapport with them at one point, and that hasn't gone away just because you haven't been in touch," Naiman said.
The best thing to do is reach out to former contacts, ask how they've been and let them know your situation. Don't be shy about using details you remember — like their children's favorite sports teams — to plant the seeds of trust, said Joe Takash, a performance management coach with Victory Consulting in La Grange Park, Ill.
If the idea of tapping someone out of the blue makes you squirm, try to connect first with a mutual friend and ask how your prospective contact is doing. When you do later connect with your former acquaintance, mention that you've spoken to the friend you have in common.
And if calling people during a time of need makes you feel desperate, Lynch suggests going to events you know they'll attend. Just don't pretend it's a total coincidence.
"Tell them it's great to see them again and get right into what they're doing and what you're up to, without making much of the fact that you both happen to be there," she said. "The important thing is to make a connection."
Step 2: Be Blunt
You don't want it to seem as if you're asking for a handout. Still, you have to be transparent.
"Most people understand what's going on with the economy, and they'll probably be happy to hear from you," said Jennifer Grasz, a spokeswoman for CareerBuilder.com. "But you need to be up-front about your intentions."
Ask for something that's easy to give, like advice, information or insight, said Lynch, of the Center for Networking Excellence.
"Nobody's got a job in their back pocket for you, or is gonna say, 'Oh great that I saw you, I've been saving this job for you,'" she said.
Intead of asking to take someone out for an hours-long lunch to pick his or her brain, suggest a 10-minute call about something specific. It'll show that you've thought about your next step and that you're not wasting everyone's time.
Step 3: Do Something for Them
The art of the ask, experts said, is to make sure an exchange is mutually beneficial. Whether you send a note on a great golf coach, an article about the industry your contact works in or feedback about projects you've worked on together, you should be passing along some sort of information.
Ask how your contacts are and be alert to what they may need and what you can offer them.
"For all you know, they could have been recently laid off," said Mark Leathers, chairman of OI Partners-Leathers Milligan, a career counseling and coaching firm based in Phoenix.
Instead of asking contacts if they know about a job, ask for information about a certain company or industry, Leathers said. It's understood that if they know of a job, they'll tell you.
Step 4: Log Into a Network
Social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook can alleviate some anxiety about dropping a line to someone you were chummy with years ago.
But career counselors warn that online connections can seem impersonal, and that phone or face time is usually the best way to ask for a favor. Use networking sites to make the initial contact, then try and set up a short appointment or phone call.
Don't send a mass e-mail or generic message. At the same time, keep it short: "It's been a long time since we've worked together at Company XYZ, and I thought I'd reconnect with you." Don't ask for help right away, but wait until they respond or accept your request to connect.
Step 5: Say Thank You
Personal touches like thank you cards will show you appreciate the help and also keep you at the front of someone's mind. Forgetting to follow up could make them forget about you when a job pops up.
When you've finally got the job, thank them. And once you land on your feet, don't forget to take calls from your own ghosts of jobs past, Leathers said.
"Everyone wants everyone's time," Leathers said. "If we offer help to people, we get treated the same way. We never know when we'll need it."
Here are five tips for keeping your network alive, without being too big a headache.
1. Go online: A site like LinkedIn.com is an easy way to look up contacts and stay on top of any moves that they make. A social networking site might not be best for professional networking. But if you need to locate a past contact, a site like Facebook should be one of the first places you check.
2. Build a routine: Make it a regular part of your schedule to reconnect with past contacts, e.g., make a point to connect with at least one person a week whom you don't regularly encounter. You don't want to have to contact them only when you need a favor.
3. Share good news: If you've been promoted, had a child or any other significant event has happened in your life, use it as a reason to reach out to your network.
4. Introduce others: You can strengthen your network by introducing friends and colleagues who may have similar interests.
5. Share news about opportunities: Be proactive in letting your contacts know about job opportunities and other information that may be of interest. For instance, sending an article to a contact about his or her area of expertise, will be both appreciated and put you back on their radar.
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