New school year = fresh start, so ask for help

Posted on September 8, 2010


My kids are finally off to school, still thrilled with the newness of their pencils, notebooks and highlighters, still receptive to the overtures of their teachers, still excited about learning new things.  What a great excuse for a fresh start for all of us.  And, in that vein, I want to suggest that maybe all that your stalled projects or longed for outcomes need is a little outside assistance.  So, go on.  Ask for help.

What kind of people ask for help?

  1. Ronald Reagan had a reputation (probably undeserved) for being one of our, um, less than brilliant presidents.  He also had a reputation for hiring smart and effective staff members.  (maybe too smart and effective.  Remember Alexander “I am in control here” Haig?)  But the bottom line is that Reagan had a successful presidential career because he was willing to rely on great helpers (including his wife, Nancy).
  2. Gwynneth Paltrow (and many other actors and actresses) uses body doubles in many of her movies – to perform stunts, to take on nude scenes or otherwise fill in.
  3. In his book The Millionaire Mind, Thomas Stanley discusses his studies of multimillionaires who were labeled as underperformers in school, people who scored low on standardized tests, who got low grades – or even dropped out of school and who were not expected to succeed, much less become multimillionaire business owners.  One of the most important characteristics of these multimillionaires was that they asked for help, and they often had a group of advisors and supporters to facilitate their businesses.

Two (or more) heads are better than one.

Have you ever been in a discussion about a project with other people who were excited about the project?  One of those meetings where everything seems to click, and everyone seems to understand and be in the same groove?  You might have some great ideas about getting things going or keeping things going, and you might share those with the group.  One or more people pick up your idea and add to it – or make a related suggestion.  Others remind the group of administrative tasks that will have to be performed if the group chooses that path.  The discussion makes you remember something – and you offer up a modification that addresses the concerns.  Someone else suggests another modification that enhances the overall idea – and suddenly you have a great idea and broad support.

You might have been able to come up with the whole thing on your own.  But by engaging with the group, you quickly brought out the strengths and weaknesses of the idea, you enhanced the concept, and you gained supporters in the bargain.

Asking for help is a sign of confidence (not weakness)

In the past I have hesitated to ask for help.  Sometimes because I’m a woman, I didn’t want to seem weak in a work situation.  Sometimes because my self-image is tied to being smart, I didn’t want to seem less than smart.  Sometimes, because I’m the mom, I felt that I had to at least appear to be in control.  When I failed to ask for help in these situations, I sometimes muddled through things, BUT I always felt stressed and uncertain that I had reached the BEST result.

I’ve been asked  for help from managers, staff members, children, friends and co-workers.  Sometimes this makes me feel proud or confident, sometimes it makes me nervous, sometimes it makes me glad – but these are all reflections of how I feel about myself – and NOT how I feel about the person asking for help.  However I feel about myself, I respect the person who has the courage or sense to ask for help.

The greatest surprise is what happens when I ask for help.  People respond! My children prove to be more cooperative than expected!  My friends come through for me, smiling.  My colleagues exceed expectations!  My boss doesn’t treat me like an idiot – and, in fact, makes a suggestion that reduces my work stress!

If you’re going to do it (and you should), Do it the right  way

In Greek mythology, the Oracle at Delphi would provide guidance – or prophecy – for people.  But the intrepid hero did not get to bring a laundry list of questions.  He or she might get one question answered.  And if he could only ask one question, it had better be a good one, and not, “What’s the special at the Trojan diner tonight?”

When I worked at the Big Bank, the very top consultants hired by the Bank got paid ridiculous hourly rates.  Like, $500 per hour was not unusual for people who were industry leaders with decades of experience.  If I decided to call one of our top consultants, I wasn’t going to ask her to explain basic terminology or to provide basic training to my staff.  In order to make the best use of her time and the best use of the Bank’s money, I would ask for her help building a bullet proof program.  I’d bring her in to explain to regulators how our systems met the spirit and the letter of the law.

So, for best results, ask for help the right way:

  1. Ask the right people for help with the right job.  If you need a certain kind of expertise, go for the best advice you can!  This is also a good way to develop mentoring relationships.  Find someone who knows the field and is willing to share her knowledge with you.  At the other end of the spectrum, if you’re in need of manual labor from your kids, make sure you ask for help with the right jobs – don’t ask for help with tasks they cannot handle.  If you ask your potential helpers for assistance in their area of competence, both you and they will be happier.
  2. Do YOUR homework.  For a request for expertise, this means using your helper strategically.  Don’t ask the highly paid consultant to help with basic tasks (they will do this gladly – but for the same price as they’ll do the more complex stuff).  For kid tasks, make sure you do whatever prep might be required and make the proper tools (and training) available.
  3. Be flexible.  Especially if the help is free!  My kids don’t like to be asked to drop everything to start cleaning the house (and they’ll make their displeasure painfully clear) but if I set the expectation and give them a little flexibility in how and when they perform, they tend to come through for me.  The potential mentor might not be available for you right this moment, but if you offer to buy them a coffee at a time convenient for them, they might respond more favorably.
  4. Be grateful. You ARE asking for help.  Even if people act as if it’s the most natural thing in the world for you to ask for help, they are doing YOU a favor.  So thank them, do a favor in return, talk them up to their (and your) friends, family and bosses.  Keep an eye out for opportunities they might like.  It makes it more likely they’ll help you out again.
  5. Be helpful.  When other people come to you asking for help, be kind – and helpful.  You might not be the right person – so suggest a better helper.  You might not know the answer – but maybe you can help them figure out how to find the answer.  The time might not be right – so suggest a better time.  You might be surprised by what you get out of BEING a helper.

For me, the biggest barrier to asking for help is fear of looking stupid.  I’m starting to get over that.  How about you?  Do you ask for help?  How?  Or are you reluctant to ask?  What holds you back?

Would love to hear your experiences of asking OR being asked for help.

thanks all


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