The Power of Asking For Help

Lifebuoy. Photo: ranieldiaz via flickr/CC BY 2.0

At what point in facing a challenge should we resort to asking for help?

The trick here is the word “resort”.

In spite of our better judgments, most of us wait until we’re stuck in the quicksand of a problem before we turn to someone for advice or counsel. But why wait until we’re desperate to seek out assistance? Why let ourselves get to a point of anxiety and frustration when it’s often altogether unneeded?

Why not, instead, make asking for help a built-in part of our work process?

There’s this metaphor in a book by Stephen Covey I read a while back, about the importance of sharpening a saw between cuts, so that the saw doesn’t get stuck in the wood it’s working through.  

“We must never become too busy sawing to take time to sharpen the saw.”

Dr. Stephen R. Covey

When we get busy, it’s easy to spend all of our time working and grinding away at whatever to-do item is looming overhead. But we should remember to find time to “sharpen our saws”, in the sense of finding ways to get better and more efficient at our work. Allowing us to ultimately get more done.

Asking for help is one of the many ways we can seek to “sharpen our saws” as we’re heading into new tasks. And the earlier we seek assistance, the less likely we are to get stuck.

Broaden your perspective

Leading product management for a team can be a lonely job. Often your peers — like the head of engineering or marketing — can’t relate to the specific challenges you face.

I found myself in this situation back when I was running product for Plaxo. As described in a previous post, I was facing a whole host of frustrating challenges. Fortunately, my boss at the time was super supportive and recommended I join Collaborative Gain, something he had received a lot of value from over the years.

Collaborative Gain is an organization founded by Phil Terry that’s anchored by a semi-annual retreat with “asking for help” as its cornerstone.

As a participant, you join a year-round “council” of 15-20 professionals in your line of work, from different organizations and industries. The council remains stable over time (save for an average turnover of 2 or 3 members a year).

This week marks my 14th retreat with my council.

Around the time of my first retreat I was considering applying Lean Startup methods to try various pivots we might make with the business. It was a big moment for myself and the company, and I wasn’t totally confident in my approach. Through what we call a “Request For Help” I led my council through the situation, and the approach I was considering. They not only gave me the confidence I needed to proceed, but also helped me fine-tune the approach, and advised me on how to best position it to my staff.

We often think our situations are unique. But more often than not, they fit into larger patterns that actually are quite common. Having access to a wider range of perspectives and experiences illustrates this, and allows you to apply the lessons already learned by others.

Ask your boss

External peers really help in diversifying your perspective, but perspective isn’t the only thing we should be asking for help with.  

It isn’t always comfortable for you or your boss, but if there’s something in their power that could enhance your performance, it’s necessary that you make it clear to them. It might be something you need their help fighting for. It might be a new challenge. A promotion. Or a more flexible schedule.

Whatever it is you need, be proactive and make it clear to them.

Hit the books

Pursuing higher education is often connected with career advancement, with the educational virtues regarded as almost an afterthought. A means to an end. But a big reason I went back to school for my MBA was fill-in a personal knowledge gap — to understand how product and business leaders think. One of the most valuable aspects of my time at Haas was applying the HBS Case Method where, again, we gained perspective around what previous business leaders did right or wrong by placing ourselves in their shoes. By covering dozens of cases we racked up experience that would have taken decades to learn first hand.

Of course, education comes in many forms, and you never know what new lesson might change your entire outlook on things.

Ask for feedback

Feedback is a gift, and if you don’t ask for it you won’t always get it. For an individual, it might be 360 surveys. For an organization, it might be employee NPS.

If your boss isn’t giving you regular feedback, or maybe they skipped your recent review — take initiative and ask for it. Present your self-review to them and ask for their assessment.

Whatever format suits your situation, don’t wait till it lands at your feet. Be proactive about identifying weaknesses and figuring out how to work around them.

“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”

Bill Gates

Early in a career, it can feel like everyone but yourself has it figured out – and if you want to move up, you’ve got to start being the one with the answers. But the people who move up and lead prosperous careers do have something figured out — asking for help.  

Everyone has their gaps. Gaps in perspective, gaps in wisdom, and gaps in a skillset. The gaps really aren’t important though – what’s important is what you do about them.

Asking for help should be an early stage of our routine. Something we do automatically – like muscle memory. Without prideful or timid hesitation.

By viewing assistance, and advice as tools in our wheelhouse, and not just last-resort, life-saving devices, we can save ourselves a lot of time and frustration.

Everyone needs help.

Get it early, and get it often.


Preston Smalley produced in collaboration with Mark Mizera.

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