You may not be looking forward to that office party, but as leadership coach John McKee explains, you can make it work to your career advantage.

“Coach John, my company is having a Holiday party again this year. Will it hurt my career if I don’t go? These aren’t really parties and they sure aren’t fun. But I worry that if I don’t show up, it will get noted and I may end up with a black mark on my record. I’d prefer to avoid it entirely, but assuming I should go — do you have any advice about how to make the best of it?”

— Unwilling Ken, Des Moines, IA

Ken, I hear similar comments each year about these company affairs, so I understand your feelings about attending. However, this is one event you really should attend. As a former company leader myself, I’ve seen the party from both sides and I know that if your leaders decided to go to the effort of creating a holiday party, someone thought it really was important.

So, my advice is: Go. And don’t go grudgingly — use it to your benefit.

Smart job pros know that schmoozing at a company event can be a real opportunity to advance their career. Here are my top 10 do’s and dont’s for climbing the ladder over cocktails.

Note: This article originally appeared as an entry in our IT Leadership blog. It’s also available as a PDF download.

1: Determine an objective

In advance of the event, expert “schmoozers” noodle about a potential best-possible outcome, relative to career growth. Think through a few realistic scenarios of how you might work toward achieving your objective.

2: Debrief your guest

As important as it is for you to know who the “important people” are at an event, the same holds true for your guest. The person you’ve chosen to accompany you to a business function, and how he or she behaves, reflects directly on you — either positively or negatively.

3: Make sure you’re seen

Arrive at the event early. Make a point of speaking to and thanking your boss and/or the host of the party. Introduce your guest and generally spread good tidings. Show your humanity and connect on a different level before things really heat up.

4: Wield the gift of gab

Generally speaking, people migrate to those who make them feel most comfortable. Appearing at ease during a time when others are feeling anxious or uncomfortable will make you look more like a “natural leader.” Read the local news before going so you’ve got some common conversation topic (aside from work!) with others.

5: Maintain your visibility but be “camera ready”

The location where you are situated should be highly visible. After all, you’ve gone to the trouble of attending, right? So stand, or take a table, in a place that is approachable. And recognize that there will always be someone who will be ready to use his or her phone to take a picture. That’s how it is today, so keep it in mind.

6: Make a good first impression

How you introduce yourself to people, especially superiors, is important. Develop more than one way of introduction and keep in mind that the secret to a good first meeting is appearing self-confident and poised and emitting a generally affable air. Bonus tip: Keep business cards with you at all times. This one’s often forgotten by those attending company meetings or social events. Dole your cards out liberally. You want to remain top of mind and also be completely accessible, post-event.

7: Articulate your contributions (without boasting)

Being able to effectively communicate, off the cuff, what you do for an organization — without gloating or overinflating — is critically important. Long-winded answers with ebbs and flows can render the actual answer lost in translation. When and if appropriate, use the opportunity to self-promote and impart any new ideas you may have in a way that will not be construed as bragging or hogging credit.

8: Be wary of what social media can do to your image

Whether it’s an embarrassing recording of a speech, a photo of someone tripping on the dance floor, or simply a shot of someone who’s had too much to drink, your story could show up on someone’s wall or even in a blog. Facebook and MySpace are riddled with pictures that may have seemed like fun at the time; but later could be bad for your career.

9: Leave your grievances at home

A social business event is not the time to clear the air about things, or people, that have been bothering you, nor is it a time to speak at another’s expense. Talking negatively about others will be a greater loss for your image and career.

10: Imbibe thoughtfully

I know, this one’s obvious, but I am putting it on my list because it’s still a big issue. Bosses and HR Types are usually pretty aware of those people who don’t act responsibly when it comes to alcohol. Whether it’s right or not, how you behave in social gatherings can affect your career trajectory.

Finally, Unwilling Ken: Even if you make only a fast appearance, it’s the smart career move. And besides, most of the folks in Des Moines are really great people.