I’ve not met a person yet that doesn’t need help from time to time, and this goes double for anyone in a leadership role. Leadership is frequently lonely and those that take their role seriously truly fret over decisions surrounded by ambiguity.
The pressure to “figure it out” is tremendous, partially imposed by our fast moving and politically charged working environments, and partially imposed by our own misguided sense that to show that we need help is to show weakness.
I’ve known otherwise good leaders that derailed because they ended up in situations where Solomon himself might have sought advice, yet personal and perceived environmental pressures kept them from reaching out to others.
And yes, some of the fears and pressures are real. There’s no doubt in my mind that there is a boundary line that can be crossed where a person goes from legitimately needing help to just plain needy. Your challenge is to learn to use “Help” as a tool and to honor that boundary.
7 Ideas for Properly and Professionally Asking for Help
1. Organize the situation to quickly and clearly create context for others. Chances are that you will spend a great deal of time processing on the problem at hand before you reach out and ask for input. What’s clear in your mind may sound fairly random and confusing to someone else unless you organize your message. Frame the situation and issues clearly and concisely before reaching out to a boss, peer or colleague. (See my post on message mapping as a tool.)
2. Identify the risks of not addressing the situation to show that you have thought through the implications to the team, the individual or the firm. But be careful not to over-state or over-dramatize the risks or the next time through, you won’t be taken seriously. (See also, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”) Highlight the most salient issues and implications as part of your narrative.
3. Never ask for help naked. OK, now that I have your attention, what I mean to say is, form and frame your key questions for help ahead of time. If you deliver your narrative and then just stop or, throw out the, “I’m just not certain what to do,” statement, you are passing the problem over to someone else, and they will resist and even resent this move on your part.
After describing your narrative and summarizing your risks, suggest a finite number of your best alternatives and break down the pros and cons of each. Ask for input, ask what other questions jump to mind, ask about prior experiences, and don’t be afraid to offer your own favored solution and ask for feedback.
4. Never ask, “What do you think I should do?” This is another question that leaves you exposed and attempts to shift your burden to someone else. Remember, it’s your job to tell us what you think you should do and the other person’s job to help you think through your logic.
5. Learn your manager’s help style. Most managers are OK offering help if you approach them properly. Take the time to study and learn your manager’s preferences when it comes to guiding others. Some enjoy getting into the details and others want the big picture along with your assessment of risks and your favored recommendations. Pursue giving too much detail to the latter manager or jump too far ahead of the manager that feels good helping you work through the issues, and you’ve misfired and missed a good opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your boss.
6. Tap into your peer network. Everyone should invest time cultivating group of individuals that will provide unvarnished feedback and will serve as an informal board of advisors. It takes effort to develop a quality network, but the dividends are potentially huge. Having one or more trusted advisors that are willing to help you sift through and sort out the hairy workplace and marketplace problems is important for all of us.
7. Don’t forget to tap into your team. While this may seem counter-intuitive and it certainly flies in the face of the mistaken self-image of the all-knowing boss, your team members might have a collectively clear view to the problem and potential solutions. And the act of asking and then listening to your team members will do wonders for your credibility.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
I missed the day that they were handing out the “all-knowing” hats and chances are that you did as well. We all need help from time to time and it’s both wise and acceptable to seek it out in the proper fashion. Asking for help is not an admission of weakness it’s an attempt to tap into the strengths of others. Just remember that you own the heavy lifting required to reach the point where others will gladly shoulder a bit of the burden.