Leadership can be lonely. We think it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help when we’re at the top; that leadership means always knowing what to do, or at least looking like you do.
What if it’s not only “okay” to ask for support, but it’s actually a sign of competence? What if asking for help and input from others strengthens your company and the people in it?
You probably got to where you are by working hard, taking risks, being bold, proving yourself, and figuring it out as you went along, right? Now you’re in charge of a successful and fast-growing company, but who – and when – do you ask for guidance?
The truth is that the best leaders understand how to surround themselves with talented people who know more than they do. Creating a culture of collaboration and asking your experts for their opinions creates a stronger, more creative, and successful company. It frees you up to lead.
Think of asking for help as strategically tapping the resources available to you – within or outside of the company – in order to get the best and quickest results. So, what does that look like for a founder or CEO in a fast growing startup today?
Who to Ask
Asking your team members for help or feedback shows that you value and trust them. It gives them opportunities to shine, grow, and take more ownership. In addition, it promotes a culture of “collaborative help” throughout the company – encouraging the sharing of perspectives and expertise. Studies have found that companies which have fostered a “culture of helping” – such as successful design firm, Ideo – show increased employee retention and customer satisfaction, and greater profits. According to Ideo CEO, Tim Brown:
“…the more complex the problem, the more help you need. And that’s the kind of stuff we’re getting asked to tackle, so we need to figure out how to have a culture where help is much, much more embedded.”
Your Colleagues and Peers
This one is especially tough for many leaders due to their fear of appearing weak or incompetent. But research has shown that asking colleagues and peers for advice can actually earn you more respect.
A Harvard Business School Study found that “individuals perceive those who seek advice as more competent than those who do not.” This does, however, depend upon the difficulty of the task, who you ask, and how the ask is made. More on that in a moment…
Of course you want your Board to trust and believe in your ability to lead. But approaching board members directly to seek advice may be appreciated if it prevents you from spinning your wheels while leaving them in the dark.
Ideally your Board contains people with a range of expertise, strengths, and experiences. Recognizing your limitations and seeking input from appropriate experts as needed is generally seen as a sign of competence and maturity as a leader. Demonstrate that you have approached the issue strategically and be as specific as possible about the input you’re looking for.
A Trusted Mentor
The act of asking someone you respect for advice is a clear statement that you value their wisdom and expertise. And most people are happy to offer you their guidance. As an added bonus, research has shown that advisers become more invested in your success by providing their advice. Seek out and create a team of trusted advisors – beyond your Board – whom you feel comfortable approaching for feedback and perspective.
As Steve Jobs asserted in his now famous 1994 interview:
“I’ve never found anyone who’s said no or hung up the phone when I called – I just asked. And when people ask me, I try to be as responsive, to pay that debt of gratitude back.”
Again, choose your advisors wisely, and seek their help sparingly. Tell them why you’ve chosen them (i.e, what you admire about them), and be clear about your ask.
A Leadership or Executive Coach
Even the most talented leaders find that the strengths that allowed them to drive the company to its current level are no longer enough to take it to the next. They may feel stuck, or unsure how to motivate and align their fast-growing teams around their vision.
Executives are increasingly turning to coaches to help them grow and succeed. A good executive coach will help you think more strategically, better leverage your strengths and those of your employees, and be more effective with your time. Most importantly, an executive coach is an objective thought partner with no agenda other than supporting you to evolve your leadership skills, and your organization.
Tips for Making the Ask
Even if we understand the benefits of asking for help, it can still feel uncomfortable to do so. Here are some tips for making the ask:
- Reframe it as a positive. Rather than being embarrassed about seeking help, think of it as asking for input and leveraging the resources around you. Your “ask” provides a mutual benefit – it gives others the opportunity to offer their expertise and showcase their skills.
- Be Specific. Define the question and the specific feedback or guidance you are seeking.
- Make it clear why you are asking that person. What strengths or skills do you see in them? For example, rather than:
“I’m totally out of my depth and don’t know how to solve this problem,”
“I know you have extensive experience with mergers and acquisitions and I would appreciate your input on this situation.”
The reality is, no matter how talented you are as a CEO or founder, there are times when the strongest leadership move is to leverage support to achieve your bigger picture objectives. Whether that support is seeking feedback from your direct reports, or hiring an executive coach, it takes wisdom, self awareness, and sometimes vulnerability, to take that step.
But what is it costing you not to?
Learn more about the value of self-awareness, openness to feedback, and how to have a strong, impactful one-on-one with members of your team in our recent how-to guide to active listening: