As the song says: It’s a small world after all. That sentiment is certainly true when it comes to the world of work, which is why maintaining good relationships with past managers and coworkers is so important. At some point, you’ll likely need a professional reference from someone you used to work with. Or, a former colleague may think of you when a great new job opportunity arises. Having a strong network of people who have seen you in action and can advocate for you can only help you as your career develops.
Here are four ways to nurture your network of past colleagues.
If you want people who you’ve worked with in the past to think and say nice things about you in the future, you need to give them a reason. And that, of course, means proving yourself in the time during which you work with them. Consistently taking care of your core tasks, going above and beyond when needed, bringing fresh ideas and solutions and working well with others – generally being a pleasant and productive coworker and an asset to the organization – are crucial for laying the groundwork for long-lasting, beneficial professional relationships.
To turn an old phrase on its head: You never get another chance to make a last impression. When it comes to maintaining relationships with past colleagues, the way you leave your job also counts. You don’t want to blow all of the professional capital and goodwill you worked hard to amass by making a less-than-desirable departure.
“The bookends – how you start and how you end – are the most important parts of any professional relationship,” Harvard Business School Professor Len Schlesinger says.
Leaving a good last impression means giving your manager ample notice – generally at least two weeks – and going strong until your last day. Make sure all of the loose ends are tied up and you’ve taken the necessary steps to ensure an orderly handoff of your duties. Don’t leave a mess for your coworkers to clean up once you’re gone.
Also, excited as you may be about your new opportunity, don’t gush about it to coworkers – bear in mind that they are staying put, and you don’t want to alienate them. Also, abstain from complaining about or bad mouthing the company you’re leaving – and that also applies to the exit interview, which, Schlesinger says, “is not the time to give the feedback you wished you had given while you were a full-time employee. First, you’re not guaranteed anonymity; it’s a small world. Second, your feedback is not going to change the organization.”
Once you’ve moved on, make an effort to maintain contact with your former colleagues. That doesn’t necessarily mean frequent phone calls and weekly happy hours (unless you already had that kind of relationship). Use social media – especially LinkedIn – to stay abreast of what is going on in your former colleagues’ lives. Use the “like” button to celebrate their career milestones, comment on posts, share items of interest when appropriate, if they engage, engage back – this type of light-touch communication is perfect for staying on someone’s radar without being overbearing.
At some point, you’re likely to request assistance from your network of former colleagues – maybe for a professional reference or insights into a company or a lead on a new job. And, usually, they are ready and willing to lend a hand.
Likewise, you need to be ready to reciprocate when they come to you for help (or, proactively let them know about job opportunities that may be a fit, write recommendations, endorse skills and so on). Networking relationships should be mutually beneficial. The more value you’re able to provide to someone else – with no obvious strings attached – the more you’ll end up getting out of the relationship.