The importance of asking for help

May 31, 2013

"Me and other very successful entrepreneurs came from the school of, 'Don’t you dare ask for help, that would be admitting a weakness.' But boy is it liberating to say, 'I don’t have all the answers.'"

- Maureen Borzacchielo, CEO, Creative Display Solutions

I have a friend who sees asking for help as a weakness. Increasingly, I see it as a strength. He believes seeking and finding his own answers to problems is the way to go through life. Admittedly this came up in a conversation we had a couple of years ago about therapy. I thought he could benefit from it and was quite surprised when he said he'd been thinking about it. But the next time we spoke, he'd decided against it. He preferred, he said, to wrangle with any family issues and inner demons internally. 

I thought of this again when I read this excellent post by Henna Inam on The Glass Hammer this week. The piece is aimed at women. So why did I begin this by talking about a man? Because I believe that while men usually rely on themselves when it comes to personal issues and where their egos are involved (like asking for directions) they're much better about seeking help and asking for favors in business. Women are more like my friend when it comes to work - we tend to rely on ourselves, thinking we have to do everything alone. We fear people will judge us as somehow lacking if we ask for help. 

Not asking for help is one of the reasons, I believe, that women lag men's success in the workplace. I interviewed entrepreneur Maureen Borzacchielo for a Marketplace radio story last year, and one of the things she told me was that the female entrepreneurs she mentored did not ask other businesspeople for enough help. Maureen herself hadn't done enough of this at the start of her life as a small business owner. Heather McGregor, who I interviewed for the penultimate show on women's appearance at work, also feels strongly that the only way to excel at work is to ask for help both at work and at home.

Tips for the help-shy: 

  • I wasn't that conscious of this until I interviewed Maureen and she articulated it: many women aspire to perfection. We feel we have to do everything ourselves, and do it perfectly. But that's just not possible, and the sooner we come to terms with this the better. 
  • This point seems so obvious when you look at it on the page, but it isn't always when you're in the thick of things, as Maureen was when she was starting out: "I met Russell Simmons at an event Tory Burch hosted…and he said he learned by seeking out people who were more successful than him. That’s OK. When did we [women] decide it wasn’t OK?" 
  • Don't think of it as bothering people. This is such a woman thing. Henna Inam puts this really well when she asks you to think of a time someone asked you for help - you probably felt flattered they'd chosen you.
  • Give help to get help. Heather McGregor has asked for a lot of help with her children over the years because she has always worked. She's had nannies, but she has also relied on family, friends and neighbors to step in. "If you’re not helping others you are not building a team," she says. "You need a sustainable community – you may never need to call the favor back in, but that doesn’t matter. You may watch someone else’s children, and you may have grown children, but you may go away unexpectedly and need someone to feed the cat." Having this community of willing helpers, who she and her family help in return, has helped her concentrate on her business.
  • I've just signed up for a series of coaching sessions with a digital marketing strategist, and the feeling of relief that came over me when I hung up the phone was huge. It was like the clichéd weight being lifted from my shoulders. I just cannot do it all when it comes to the gazillion things, digital and otherwise, I need to do for The Broad Experience and to 'get myself out there'. I need help.