When Rick Featherstone, 49, was laid off from DHL in August after nearly five years with the company, he dived into his Rolodex to call old network of colleagues and business associates. He figured it would be easy to reconnect. But it turned out that many of his former coworkers had moved on and finding them was a challenge. Mr. Featherstone, who had worked at just three companies over the previous 22 years, quickly realized his contact list was sorely out of date.
Four months later, the former IT manager has found many former colleagues, but in retrospect he says he has learned a valuable lesson: "You have to be ready to move at a moment's notice, you aren't going to work for the same company for 50 years."
Many laid-off professionals who've worked at the same company -- or just a few firms -- over their careers may find that their networks have gone stale. Experts recommend networking be done consistently and be nurtured throughout a career, but that's not always feasible in a world of 70-hour workweeks and family commitments. There are ways to jump start a network that's out-of-date and to rebuild rapport with former friends and colleagues.
First, you actually have to find these people. The email address you used a year ago may yield only a bounceback message now. Michael Duncan, 44, was laid off from a software-development firm in late October. While working for the same company for 11 years, Mr. Duncan hadn't done much networking. "I just had this assumption that I didn't need to worry about it," he says.
To rebuild his network he emailed former colleagues, did Internet searches and asked ex-coworkers to reconnect him to people they have stayed in touch with. But Mr. Duncan has had trouble locating former managers for references, particularly a manager who moved overseas, whom he still hasn't found.
Social- and business-networking sites such as LinkedIn and Plaxo are good ways to find old connections. LinkedIn officials say the site has seen a 36% increase in membership over the past six months as executives scramble to rebuild their networks. You can search by name or company to find old acquaintances. Personalize your network invitation request with a memory the two of you shared or a reminder of who you are, says Cheryl Yung, a senior vice president of outplacement firm Lee Hecht Harrison. Once you've re-established your relationship, you can also view the friends of your connections, and request an introduction to people at companies that interest you.
If you already have a LinkedIn account, keep it current. An update on David Stevens's LinkedIn status indicating that he was "up for grabs" spurred one of his contacts to alert him to a job opportunity. He interviewed for the job and within two weeks of being laid off, he was back at work.
Once you've located people in your old network, a simple holiday card to a former manager or colleague -- or calling to wish them a happy New Year -- can reopen dialogue, says Ms. Yung.
It can be daunting or uncomfortable contacting people you haven't spoken to in years -- especially when you've just been laid off. But, you can use the spirit of the season as a crutch; December and January are prime months to get reacquainted with old friends and colleagues. Also, try to attend as many holiday parties as you can; look for people you've lost touch with and speak to people you've never met, advises Bettina Seidman, a New York career-management counselor.
Once you've made contact, arrange a meeting. "Email and networking sites speed up the communication, but they don't do the networking for you," says Liz Lynch, author of "Smart Networking: Attract a Following In Person and Online." Career coaches say it's critical to set up in-person meetings and attend networking events. Be mindful of your contact's time; you might not be the only one asking for help. Ask for 10 minutes to chat, or offer to catch up over coffee or lunch, says Ms. Lynch.
If you've exhausted your efforts to find people or need to start from scratch, professional associations are a good place to begin. Associations give you access to other professionals who may work for or have contacts within companies you want to work with. Finding a local chapter is as easy as plugging your industry and the word "association" or "society" into a search engine, says Laura Hill, a career coach with The Five O'Clock Club in New York.
Once you find the association, join up and look for events the local chapters are holding. It's an opportunity to network with people who will speak your industry language.
If you've been in a more senior executive position, consider volunteering to speak at industry and trade conferences or offer to serve on committees for professional associations, says Ms. Seidman. Volunteering to work at professional events like speaking occasions, luncheons and networking affairs are also great ways to meet people, says Ms. Hill.
Back to School
Alumni associations can also be helpful. In wake of the financial crisis, many colleges are ramping up their alumni services and even holding career fairs and networking events for alumni, says Ms. Lynch. Contact your alma mater's alumni-relations office to get access to their online database. Once there, you can search for old friends by name or class, or search for alumni at different companies or industries you are interested in working in, says Ms. Hill.
Informal networking can also help. If you find yourself standing in line at the bank or grocery store, strike up a conversation with the person behind you, says Susan Guarneri, a career coach based in Three Lakes, Wis. "You should network with everyone you meet because you don't know who they know," says Ms. Guarneri, who once got a job after receiving a tip from her exterminator.
And remember, networking is a give-and-take experience. Figure out what you can offer -- whether it be a contact, a lunch or a favor. "It gives the signal that you're in it for the two of you," says Ms. Lynch.
Write to Dana Mattioli at firstname.lastname@example.org