One of my favorite and most treasured golden gems of advice gifted to me by my first boss, was to never shy away from asking for help, because:
… those who are able to acknowledge that they don’t have all of the answers and are brave enough to seek guidance, tend to go the furthest.
Like your tell-it-like-it-is aunt, or that sensible older cousin, she had an uncanny ability to see into my future in a way that I could not. When she spoke, I felt emotion and force and intellect carrying her words – a clear sign that she was speaking from experience. So I listened intently. She put a tremendous amount of care and effort into helping me understand my potential so that I could fly far when I had left her protective nest. She strove to help put me on as sturdy a footing as possible as soon as I walked through the doors because she knew that the world beyond her reassuring reach would not be so forgiving.
Looking back, the behavior which led my boss to dole out sage wisdom in her typical no frills, borderline tough love style, came from a place of innocence on my part. It was an obvious rookie misstep. Believing in my abilities in spite of my lack of deep technical experience, she’d managed to bring me in to join her team, part-time at first. She desperately needed some additional hands to help tackle the mountain of work that her full-time team could no longer focus on because of a sudden tripling in workload; the happy result of a recent, super, successful, new product launch. My task seemed fairly simple at the outset: review a bunch of historical research from a handful of different countries; find the patterns and inconsistencies; then present thoughtful recommendations to the broader team.
“Well, this is a lot, but I’ve got what it takes, right?” were my initial thoughts. I don’t think I actually said many words while the request was being explained to me. For sure, if I did, none of them were questions. So I left her office feeling excited and ready to tackle my very first big-girl corporate assignment. I returned to my cubicle and started opening the files from my email. One by one, I quickly clicked through each report and became increasingly overwhelmed by all that I in-fact did not know: the jargon, the acronyms; the differences in the way each report was assembled; the numbers… all. those. numbers.
I shut my laptop and headed to the coffee cart by the elevators when our friendly coffee lady stopped on our floor. I was eager to take a break, because by then, my brain was swimming with thoughts of doom and doubt. Wait, I have no idea what a corporate-style ‘synthesis’ looks like! What does she mean by ‘synthesis’? Is that a summary or are they used to something completely different around here? I felt silly for feeling so ill-prepared, and worried about being found out for this.
I returned to my desk to continue to inflict more mental wounds; I’m not supposed to be here. I’m the only one here who hasn’t worked in the field that they were hired to work in before. I’m not sure she knew what she would be getting into when she hired me. And on I went. I spent most of the day beating myself up for not being able to figure things out more quickly and kept all these feelings to myself. The next day, I resolved to get moving and did what I could to get on top of the request so that I could prove to my boss that she’d not made a mistake in bringing me on. I did everything…well, I did everything that is, except ask for help.
Before the final delivery of my presentation, I’d set up a meeting to share my progress and get feedback from my boss. By that point, I had worked so hard on perfecting every slide that I’d convinced myself that the presentation was awesome. Yes, awesome. I was proud of what I’d overcome and was eager to see my boss’ reaction to what I’d done; what I’d thought was really good work.
But she wasn’t on the same page. She didn’t think that it was awful, but her stiffly placed pointer-finger over her lips, revealed a subtle discomfort; like she was not quite unhappy, but not thrilled either, and did not want to say too much right away so as not to bruise my ego. After I’d gone through the first section of the presentation, she finally stopped me. She posed two pointed questions which were meant to help orient her as she listened to my story, but were really not-so thinly veiled pieces of constructive feedback: “What’s the objective of this presentation?” and “Who is this presentation for?” I was completely thrown off… and deeply humbled.
As I stumbled over my answers, I could feel my body’s temperature increasing as waves of embarrassment seeped into the places where certainty once occupied. To her credit, my boss knew exactly what she was doing. My presentation was aesthetically beautiful and showed that I’d put a lot of work into extracting the big AHAs, but it lacked the cohesion it needed to be a compelling story that would keep an audience’s attention or spark meaningful thinking and conversation.
In addition to asking about the presentation’s objective and intended audience, my boss also inquired why I hadn’t come to her earlier on to clarify these questions, and any others that I might have had. I
confessed lied and said that I didn’t think I needed the help because the request was clear and straightforward. The truth, as you now know, was that I was scared.
I equated asking for help with weakness. So I kept my mouth shut and my head down; plowed through the research using Google as my substitute teacher to close the knowledge gaps that remained in the transition from Grad School to Real Work; looked through the work of others who came before me to get a flavor for what ‘good’ looked like; and worked into the wee hours of the morning to put it all together.
I wanted to over-deliver and exceed expectations. But while I worked overtime, my boss heard silence coming from my direction. And that quiet… that gaping void in communication, unfortunately did more harm than good. In the absence of news, we human beings have evolved to fill the gaps. We unconsciously fill the gaps with whatever makes the most sense to us so that we can move on and deal with more important things. In my case, my silence led my boss to fill the gap with the belief that I really did have it all covered, because (she assumed), if I needed help, I would have come to her.
As our feedback session continued, she went on to explain how important it was to overcome the fear of asking for help; and that the first step was to change my view of it from a sign of weakness to a show of courage; and that the MAGIC was in being able to find the right way to communicate the need for help.
So rather than just saying, “I need help,” the key was to do it (1) during the first point of contact in order to clarify hypotheses, concerns, risks, deadlines and any other areas of ambiguity before running off to do the work, and (2) at appropriate intervals during the actual work to informally-check in on progress so that helpful guidance could be given. More than helping to set expectations and reduce the chances of disappointment upon delivery of the work, doing these things would help to foster trust, build credibility and enhance the feelings of collaboration and teamwork critical to my standing on the team, and ultimately my career.
Luckily for me, this experience and the above lessons which came from it, were well-contained: it occurred on the early side of my career; was oriented around my first project; my ‘requester’ was my manager; and said manager was a caring female leader in the company who saw potential in me and always took the time to coach me on the softer, more nuanced side of leadership. I am thankful that I was in a safe space to fail and learn quickly.
Now I recognize that having this ‘safe space to fail’ is a bit of a luxury. I also understand that many managers simply do not have the patience for, the inclination towards, or capacity for this kind of coaching. So if I can offer up any advice to those who are early in career, stressed out about delivering excellent work, but also struggling to make progress: it would be to ask for help. You may feel extremely nervous about admitting that you don’t know, or are confused – but if you’ve taken steps, any steps at all, to try to tackle the challenge (looking through the presentation that you were emailed counts! talking to a colleague to get their thoughts also counts!) you’re off to a strong start.
Thoughts on how to confidently ask for help
Try communicating that you’ve “made some inroads, but have a question” or that you’d “like to set up time to ask a few questions to ensure that you’re on the right path” or that you have “some ideas on how to tackle the challenge but wanted to get feedback on them.”
But whatever you do, try not sit silently at your desk until the nth hour, or plowing away on a task in the wrong direction only to learn that you’ve been off course when it’s too late. Ask for help, be humble, then overdeliver.
Go ahead. Give it a try. It’s worth the shot.