How to ask for help

06.21.12 Help ThumbnailBy never caring how they look, the best executives end up looking great — looking like someone who gets results.  (Women are much better than men in this area.) Leadership expert Tom Cox explains.

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Erik, CEO of a small technology firm, was in trouble.  His most time-consuming clients weren’t paying on time — one wasn’t paying at all.  His pipeline of new work was nearly empty.

At the end of one day, when he and I were sitting quietly together, it was after 6 PM and we were halfway through talking when he sat bolt upright as if he’d been stabbed in the buttock by a scorpion.  His eyes became huge, and he interrupted our quiet conversation to blurt out: “I forgot to call Jeff.”

Jeff was the big new prospect he’d been working on for three weeks.  Erik kept delaying tasks — the proposal was almost a week late, the call Erik promised “tomorrow” came five days later — and I remembered him telling me today was the day Jeff wanted to have “a serious conversation” with him.

Erik kept insisting to me it wasn’t his fault.  Existing clients kept needing things, and his subcontractor screwed up some wiring and Erik had to fix it himself (eating up all his margin), and on and on.

Despite all this, Erik had one thing going for him — he wasn’t afraid to ask for help.  And, absurd as it sounds, a shocking number of senior executives, CEOs, and business owners are unwilling to ask anybody for help.

This happened at a technology firm where an outside consultant suggested expanding their already successful work into a crucial new area — helping them get their projects done on time, with fewer mistakes.  The CEO’s top people began to drag their feet and sulk, like reluctant schoolboys.  Finally one of them blurted out, “if we hire a consultant, we’re admitting we can’t do it ourselves.”

In other words, they were more worried about looking good than in getting results.

By contrast, top CEOs ask for help a LOT more often.  My friend Richard, a highly sought after CEO with a string of successful startups, is perfect at this.  At coffee I’ll ask him what he’s working on, what his problems are, what he needs.  He immediately tells me his top 5 needs, so crisply you’d think he’d rehearsed it.

Why is he so quick to share his needs? Because maybe I know someone how can help him.

Richard cares about results.  By never caring how he looks, he ends up looking great — he looks like someone who gets results.  (Women are much better than men in this area.)

Back to Erik.  After I walked him through “How to handle a broken promise,” to salvage his relationship with Jeff, Erik asked me to meet with him weekly and go over whatever we had to do to keep him on track.  We devised some simple tools to make it easy for him to stay on top of his pipeline, to make the right phone calls even while on the road, and to get the details out of his head and onto paper, so he’d stop exhausting himself trying to remember everything.

He also made the gut-wrenching decision to cut off two clients who needed vast amounts of time and hand-holding, yet never paid him.

Within three months, he’d tripled his monthly income and built out three months of solid future prospects.

The keys Erik  mastered before he could actually ask for help:

1. Give up “looking good” — focus on getting results
2. Insist that would-be helpers prove they can truly help — get references
3. Take advice, but retain responsibility — your adviser isn’t going to do the work FOR you
4. The more you ask for help the right way, the more good help you’ll get, and the better your results will become.

Tom Cox is a Beaverton consultant, author and speaker. He coaches CEOs on how to boost performance by building workplace trust. Email comments to  [email protected].