A few of the above questions may be dancing in your head when you receive the invite to your organization’s holiday party. These are reasonable questions — but if you want to use the events this month to advance your career, your primary question should be: How can I connect with the right people, in the right way?
For most people this approach doesn’t come intuitively so I’ve teamed up with Zachary Johnson, CEO of Syndio Social and an expert in social network analysis, to come up with a guide for maximizing the results of your time investment in holiday functions. Here are our seven ways to optimize the office holiday party.
Understand that the primary goal is not to have fun: An office holiday party serves a different function than one with your family or friends. This isn’t about completely relaxing and letting loose—unless you want a starring role in the water cooler drama the next day. It’s not about sampling each appetizer. It’s not about hanging out with the same people you see at lunch everyday. It is, however, about spending time with key individuals who you can’t connect with organically because they’re in a different functional area or located at different offices. If you need to stop home to take a nap or eat something before arriving at the event so you aren’t zoning out or fixated on the buffet table, give yourself time to take care of yourself. Then, once your foot steps in the door of the party you should be fully committed to being outwardly engaged and involved until you leave.
Plan to meet key people: If you find it impossible to schedule a meeting with certain individuals because of their packed calendar but you know they’ll be at the event, reach out to them in advance. Suggest meeting up for a drink before the party or simply let them know you’ll be at the event and looking for them. This will prime them to expect your approach and encourage you to make it a priority to find them. If you want to meet new people but don’t know who to approach, pay attention to which people are the center of attention in the different groups or who are making lots of introductions. According to Johnson’s research, these people tend to be “super connectors” who can open doors for you in the future.
Avoid the usual suspects: It’s comfortable to make yourself cozy in the center of a group that already knows you, but that won’t lead to the kind of meaningful connections that can help you get more done in the coming year. After saying a quick, “Hello,” to your standard crew, look for people who you don’t know very well. According to Johnson, “The people who you only talk to a couple of times a year are more likely to bring you new opportunities that you wouldn’t hear about-such as a job posting-because they’re outside of your main circle.”
Build personal connections rather than talking only about work: The speed at which you can complete projects often depends greatly on responsiveness from another department, such as sales, accounting, or legal. Identify which individuals could make life easier for you in the coming year, and then go over and talk to them. This doesn’t mean joining the receiving line in front of the CEO, according to Johnson, “the higher in the company you go, the fewer ‘getting things done’ connections you have.” But it does mean spending some time putting faces to the names of people who can supply information or grant the approvals you need to more effectively do your work. Find out about their plans for the holidays, ask about their hobbies, and generally build rapport so when they see your e-mail request in the future, they’ll be more apt to open it.
Use the buddy system: If you need a bit of a security blanket to venture into uncharted territory, bring along a friend or significant other to help ease your entry into new circles. One strategy is to approach a group and say, “Hello, I’m [Name]. I work in [ABC] department and am looking to meet some people outside of my division.” This then naturally leads to the other members of the group stating their name and department, which opens up the conversation to you.
Don’t spend too long with one person: If the conversation goes on for a while, enjoy the mingling and then gracefully exit by saying, “It’s been great to meet you, but I’m going to refresh my drink.” Or if you would like to keep in touch, say, “Would it be OK if I contacted you to set up a 15-minute phone call to talk about XYZ?” That way, they will be more likely to accept the meeting request when you follow up. Don’t say that you’ll follow up unless you actually want to and will do so. You want to build people’s trust in your follow through. I recommend immediately making a note in your calendar to send a follow up e-mail the next business day. Relying on your memory can lead to you appearing unreliable.
But don’t bounce around too much, either: You’re not playing a game of pinball and getting points for each group you hit. If you’re really not connecting with a new set of people, it’s fine to move on after a few minutes. But for most encounters, you should be spending at least 10- to 15-minutes making a genuine connection. Look for opportunities to give to those around you. It could be as simple as offering to get them another drink, make a connection to a colleague, or follow up with a book recommendation.
Of course, if someone approaches you that you do know or if you’ve met some other groups of people and are ready for something more familiar, it’s completely fine to stop and enjoy the moment. Don’t be rude to the people who already know and like you — just be intentional in widening your circle. Yes, it is a party. But it’s also work.