Whether you’re starting out in a career or transitioning into a new endeavor, one truth remains: If you think that hard work alone will move you up the company ladder, think again. It’s relationships –the ones you have with your manager and coworkers (present and past), clients and more – that will get you there.

You’re nodding your head in agreement – and, really, why wouldn’t you be? Most of us have accepted the fact that meeting and greeting and making plenty of contacts (and, hopefully, friends) along the way, is also part of our job description. And that goes for everyone, even if you’re in school, currently unemployed, or living in a mud hut somewhere – sorry, no one that wants to collect a paycheck is immune from networking.

Here’s the funny thing: We all hear about how important networking is for our careers, but many of us simply don’t do it. In fact, some of us hate the practice, and would rather eat an entire copy of my book, Work 101: Learning the Ropes of the Workplace without Hanging Yourself, (sorry, shameless plug) than network, even if it meant we’d wind up in better jobs with better opportunities as a result. Does this make any sense to you?

It’s time to grow up about networking and start doing it. Let’s face it: Most of us dread networking because we aren’t good at it, so we don’t do it, unless we’re really desperate. The problem? Because we’re out of practice, we don’t get the results we want. This makes sense – after all, if you only went to the gym once a year, you’d probably hate it there, too, right?

It’s time to start practicing so we can get better at networking. Read on for a few suggestions on how to resolve some common networking stumbling blocks here:

Networking Issue #1: I have no problem with networking, in principle. But in practice, it seems cheesy and forced. Do I really need to do this if I’ve always done good work at my previous jobs?

Let me ask you a question: How is your system working for you? If your career is moving at the pace and in the direction that you’d like, then let us speak of this networking thing no more.

On the other hand, it’s tempting to think that people will automatically think of you for great jobs or opportunities that come along. But don’t get caught in the tap of thinking that just because you’ve done great work in the past that the great career opportunities will come flooding in. It takes more than doing good work to get ahead, just as the best actors don’t necessarily win the Oscar at the Academy Awards each year.

Finally, managing your career and taking proactive steps to build relationships isn’t cheesy – it may just be something you aren’t used to doing, so start small and ease yourself into it.

Networking Issue #2: Everyone tells me I need to network – but I have no network! How do I get started?

Remember the networking golden rule: Your job is to have as many conversations with as many people as possible. That’s it. There are plenty of details to go along with this concept [check out Down with Networking, a free article on www.elizabethfreedman.com], but start small and use my simple, five-stage process:

The Gathering Stage: Gather lots of names of people with whom you’d like to meet/speak. (If you’re stuck here, think about your long-term goal: If you want to work in finance, what are the companies you’d like to target? How can you reach out to people inside those companies?)
The Emailing Stage: Email each contact.
The Follow-Up Stage: A week after sending your email, follow up with a phone call to arrange a phone or in-person meeting.
The Meeting Stage: Have a meeting with your contact – where you dazzle and impress.
The Thanking Stage: Send a thank-you note and follow up with any next steps.

If you want specifics of what to say, write or do in any of these stages, or how to gather names of people to meet when you’re starting from scratch, check out (shameless plug alert!) Work 101 or my guidebook, The MBA Student’s Job Seeking Bible.

Networking Issue #3: I have been using networking to help me land a new job, but I feel like I’ve already reached out to my network with no results. Now what?

No matter how terrific your network, be sure that you’re reaching out to people in an appropriate, professional way. Here’s what is unprofessional: Forwarding your resume to someone without being asked to do so first – it’s the equivalent of asking for someone’s hand in marriage on the first date. In either case, it’s too much, too soon, and you’re asking for something prematurely.

Here’s another bad approach: Reaching out too often to your network. If you’re feeling desperate for a job or business, it’s tempting to go overboard and call or email your contacts on a regular (or daily!) basis, but avoid this. And, don’t attempt to email anyone and everyone that might be able to help you in your career quest. You aren’t right for everyone, and everyone isn’t right for you. Be smart about protecting your time (and your networks’) by thinking long and hard about who it really makes sense for you to contact based on your career goals. Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, make a Top 10 list of people you’d like to meet and work your way through, slowly.

Finally, review issue #2. You may simply need a broader network. Reach out to new people on a regular basis and diversify the contacts you’ve got.

We can write and theorize about networking all day, but the only way to get better at it is to do it. Get started today, and start building the relationships that can make a huge difference in your career.

Author's Bio: 

Elizabeth Freedman is an expert in career and workplace issues. She is the author of Work 101: Learning the Ropes of the Workplace without Hanging Yourself and The MBA Student’s Job-Seeking Bible, and was a 2005 finalist for College Speaker of the Year, awarded by the Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities. Elizabeth runs a Boston-based career-development and coaching firm; clients include PricewaterhouseCoopers, Thomson Reuters and The Gillette Company. To bring Elizabeth to your next association event or workplace meeting, please visit http://www.elizabethfreedman.com.