How often do you find yourself at social gatherings for your company, another company, or simply a friend or acquaintance's party where you encounter a lot of colleagues or clients? You may dread these events as chores you must get through or chances to make jokes and knock back a few beers. But you'll go farther faster if you treat them as the opportunities they are to strengthen your leadership role and your key business relationships.

That advice comes from Michael Crom, chief learning officer at Dale Carnegie Training. "You can take a leadership role and take on the spirit of the occasion at the same time," he says.

Here's how the best leaders handle social events:

1. They research who will be there.

If you won't already know everyone present, and especially if it's at a client company or location, "treat it like a networking event," Crom advises. "Learn about the organization you'll be visiting and the industry it's in. Read up on them on the company website. Who are the key people who may be there, and who else could they introduce you to? I love using LinkedIn for that. I look at their list of contacts or their friends list on Facebook and see who they know that I might want to meet."

2. They talk to every person there, at least briefly.

"Try to keep all these conversations upbeat," Crom says. You don't want to make anyone uncomfortable, so skip discussions of politics, religion, or off-color jokes, he advises. Instead, "Give honest and sincere appreciation," Crom says. "That's one of our principles, and I would especially remember it in this kind of social setting." It could be as simple as thanking each employee for his or her efforts or every customer for his or her business.

3. They engage the wallflowers.

"In virtually every party situation, there are people who are introverted," Crom notes. So make a point of starting a conversation with these loners. "Ask them about themselves; urge them to talk, and be a good listener," Crom says. Look for topics you may have in common, or ask about the person's childhood or first job. "They'll have a better time," Crom says. "And you'll get to know some of the people you work with a lot better."