We know—we tell you to network nearly every day. But today, don’t take it from us, take it from one of the most successful women we know: Cathie Black.

This week, our virtual mentor weighs in on how to find the right networking opportunities, how to make a great impression once you’re there, and how to make sure all your hard networking work pays off. Here are her keys to networking success.

Start Right Now

Just do it. The beginning of the year is perfect—everyone’s excited about new beginnings! And really, it’s easy to get started. Every community, industry, and alumni organization has some type of organization that you can join, observe, or volunteer with. And if you’re nervous or don’t know where to begin, ask your friends what networking events they attend, and join them. What this accomplishes is that you can get your feet wet in a more comfortable setting.

You could also start a networking group yourself. Send a text or email to 10 of your friends, suggest a place and date, and ask each person to bring someone new. Some of the people already in your personal network can be more helpful than you might have imagined! To keep the event more professional, you could plan a structured conversation about everyone’s career goals, status of their job satisfaction, or even current trends in various business sectors.

Have a Plan

Whether you’re looking for a job or just trying to just expand your circle of contacts for future reference, it’s a good idea to set a goal for each networking event you attend. It could be as simple as, "I’m going to meet and talk with at least 10 people and get their business cards." This will keep you focused as to the purpose of attending, so that you reach beyond your comfort zone and really do make new contacts.

If you know people at the event, that’s great—but try not to spend the entire evening talking to them. And if you don’t recognize anyone, just put a smile on your face, introduce yourself to the first people you see, and say you haven't been to one of these types of events before. Almost always, people are friendly and will be happy to chat with you. But keep moving on! Don't get stuck with one group, which diminishes your opportunity to meet more potential contacts.

Arrive Early, Leave Early

Being early at events is much better than being late. If you arrive late, the room will likely be jammed, but if you arrive early, you can station yourself close to the entrance, see who is coming in, and go right up and say hello to anyone you’re interested in talking to. Once a room is filled, it’s much harder to move around, see who is there, or make lots of contacts.

I also suggest never being the last one to leave. It feels awkward to be one of just a few remaining people and plus, if you leave before things are truly winding down, it makes you seem a little more in control—as if you have something important to go to next. If the event goes from 6 to 8, leave about 7:30. If it’s really, really boring, you can obviously leave much earlier—but you have to give it a chance!

Don't Get Stuck

The purpose of networking is to meet lots of people, so you never want to get stuck talking to the same person for half of the event. In 2-3 minutes, you can assess whether someone is valuable, and make plans to follow up with him or her. But then, so you can go on to meet others, just say, "It’s been great talking with you, but I have to move around the room." Everyone understands that. After all, it's why you've come to a networking event in the first place.

Meet the People You Want to Meet

If there’s someone at the event that you want to meet—the speaker, a celebrity, or a high-profile executive—you have to be really fast before they disappear into the crowd. In some cases, you have to just really push yourself forward. If I’m in the audience at a conference, and want to introduce myself to a particular speaker, I go right up to the front of the room so when that person exits the stage, I can tag along and say hello. Or, wait in the hallway just outside where you know they will exit. Most importantly, you have to be assertive and fast—before handlers get to them and whisk them away.

Follow Up

If you’ve met someone interesting, send an email the next day saying, "So nice to chat with you at the event last night—I’d like to keep the conversation going. How about coffee after work one evening? Next Thursday works for me.” The point here is to be specific with a date so you can nail down the next meeting—and also to follow up quickly, so they hopefully remember who you are.

I also suggest keeping an ongoing list of contacts you want to keep up with. For each person, note where you met him or her and when you last spoke or met up, then comb through the list regularly and follow up with each person a month or so later to reconnect. Don't let too much time go by or the contact will probably forget who you are. And when you reconnect or follow up, don't forget to remind the person where you first met just to jog his or her memory.

Does networking take work and time? Yes. But seeing and being seen is all part of the game. There will be times that you just won't feel like it, but try to remember that it's all part of the networking effect: If you put yourself out there, it will pay off with results equal to the effort you put in. Think of it like a game, and have fun at the same time

Photo of women networking courtesy of Shutterstock.