Sure, your company holiday party is a fun opportunity to unwind, kick back and celebrate the hard work you and your team have put in all year long. But you may not realize it‘s also one of the best networking opportunities to grow your career. Think about it: when else would you have the chance to have a conversation with your CEO, or casually engage the person responsible for approving your pay raise?

“This is the best time of the year to meet people who can help you get a promotion,” says networking expert Brenda Greer. “People do business and promote people they know and like. So get connected with those who can help you climb the ladder.”

Here’s how to get in front of key players at your company and make a memorable impression that will reflect positively come the new year.

Go early

Your company holiday party is not the kind of event you want to show up fashionably late for. In fact, etiquette consultant Jodi RR Smith says the earlier you get there, the better your odds of meeting the higher-ups in your company. “The big wigs and VIPs tend to go early and leave early – if you arrive fashionably late you may miss them,” she says.

Have 3-5 target people in mind

Who you’ll want to meet with depends largely on your goals. “If you are trying for a bigger bonus, then your immediate supervisor is your best bet," Smith says. “If you are looking to move to another division, then the hiring manager in that department is your target. If a better understanding of the company framework is your goal, then a fellow alum in a different unit would be an ideal person to chat up during the party.”

If you’re not sure where to start, Greer says to focus on people in your organization who could help grow your career. “Your goal is to meet people who can help you climb the ladder in the company,” she says. “Make a list of who you want to meet in each department and know what they look like.”

Have questions planned in advance

You don’t want to know so much about your target that it’s off-putting. But if there are certain interests that your CEO or higher-ups hold that are common knowledge (pride for their hometown, a favorite sports team, etc.), having those talking points in your back pocket will help move the conversation forward. “If the executive is a big golfer, then a golf-related question might work, i.e. ‘I am just starting to plan a golf outing for this summer, what courses around here are best for beginners?’ says Smith.

If you’re not finding much to go off, have a few open-ended questions prepared to break the ice. One of my favorite questions to ask this time of year is: what are you most excited about looking towards 2020?” says executive coach and consultant Randi Braun. “They’ll likely have something they’re excited about, which means they’re more likely to stay engaged in a longer conversation with you.”

Introduce your way into the conversation

At a holiday party, the hardest part about making conversation can be to find a way into it – especially when groups have already congregated. As a first step, Smith says to observe the circle you’re looking to enter. “If your boss is chatting up a VIP client, this is not the time to join the conversation,” she says. “As you approach your target, note what is happening. Does everyone appear highly engaged? Then you are going to need to wait.”

Once you find the right opportunity, CEO Bobby Reed says it’s okay to interject yourself into the circle and participate in the conversation. “Introduce yourself to one of the people in the circle,” he suggests. If you’re approaching an individual, ask what they’re drinking. “It is simple, easy, and opens the door to a conversation that is more about drinking and less about work stuff,” he says.

Don’t just talk shop

You want the person you’re interacting with to know who you are and what kind of work you do for the company (which you should cover in your introduction) – but make sure you’re balancing it out with conversation that forges a connection. Commenting on the party’s ambiance, food, environment or any big current event going on in the country (save for politics and religion) are great topics. “Ask about what fun events or traditional activities they do during the holidays,” says Greer. “If food, wine, holiday cookies, skiing, or snowshoeing is your thing, start conversations around topics that inspire you and engage them in your passion, and ask them about theirs.”

Know when to leave

Exit the conversation once you feel you’ve successfully created a memorable interaction – but don’t wait until there’s an awkward silence. “It’s better to leave the conversation while they still find you fascinating,” says Smith. Instead of using an excuse (like the bathroom, or needing to speak with someone else), make a graceful exit. “A simple ‘I am so glad we were able to speak, enjoy the rest of the event’ works well,” Smith suggests.

Don’t overdo it at the open bar

It’s tempting to over-indulge when the company is picking up the tab. But if you’re planning to approach key people who have a say in your career’s future, you’ll want to keep your wits about you. Most experts recommend a one-drink maximum – or even foregoing the bar altogether. “The best way to make a positive impression at your holiday party, especially if you’re using it as an opportunity to network with executives, is to stay sober,” says Braun. “This way you can
bring your best self to the conversations when they happen. You want to be remembered for a great conversation, not for having too much fun.”

Follow up

You’ve made a memorable impression on key stakeholders that are well poised to help grow your future with the company – now it’s time to make sure you continue to build these relationships. “Follow up after the event with a quick email or note saying how nice it was to meet them,” says Smith. To help the email stick out, include a talking point you discussed or common ground you had to make it feel personal. Next, Smith says to send a follow-up email a
few weeks later pertaining.

Originally published on Ladders.

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