how do I stay in touch with former managers?

A reader writes:

I started a new job about a year and a half ago with a manager who was amazing — very supportive and patient. He was one of the perks of the job. He recently found a new opportunity and moved on from my organization a little more than a month ago. When he left, he told me to keep in touch and that I could use him as a reference in the future.

I’d love to keep in touch but have no idea what to say! I feel like the standard advice is to send relevant articles and say why I think they would be interesting to him, but he’s moved to a different industry and is more than 10 years senior to me. Should I just reach out and ask him how the move went and how the new job is? How do I follow up after that? Appreciate any advice you may have on keeping in touch with past managers!

Yeah, don’t do the thing about sending him articles, unless you run across something that truly makes you think of him. If it’s a genuine “Oh, Brian would love to see this” moment, then yes, send it along. But don’t go looking for articles that you could send him as a way of staying in touch — that’s not a good use of his time (or yours), and it can come across oddly unless it’s really genuine.

Honestly, I think the advice out there about staying in touch with past managers tends to overstate how much you need to do it. Generally I think the reasons you reach out should be genuine ones, even if that means that quite a while goes by in between contacts. If the relationship was a strong one when you worked together, you can let a few years go by without contact, and the manager will still welcome hearing from you about a reference or an update about your life or a request for professional expertise or so forth.

But if you worry about going that long without contact, aim for an email once or twice a year. (My personal opinion is that once a year is fine, unless it develops organically into a closer relationship than that.) Tell him what’s going on in your life professionally or personally. If you can connect professional updates to things he helped you with, that’s ideal — a skill that he helped you build, or something he coached you in, or something you learned from watching him, or something he said he could see you doing one day. It’s super gratifying to hear about that kind of thing from former employees! On the personal side, big life events can be a good reason to email, like getting engaged or married, having kids, taking an amazing trip to a destination you’ve talked about with him, etc.

Alternately, you can ask him to catch up over lunch once a year or so as well. Some people are lunch types, some aren’t, and you’ll probably have a decent sense of whether he is from working with him. (I’m not so that’s probably biasing me into more caution here than is necessary; I suspect more people are up for lunch with old contacts than are not.)

Mainly, though, the thing is to make this all genuine. Don’t look at it as “I need to check off specific actions in order to stay in touch with a former manager.” Look at is as “We worked together, I liked him, and he’s now a person I know and will occasionally talk with” and that’s far more likely to lead you in the right direction.

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