While starting a new business always involves tackling many new challenges, I’ve personally found myself reluctant to ask for help. I suspect it’s a function of pride and confidence in my own problem solving abilities, but my hesitation has definitely cost me time and money. Thus, in my consulting with entrepreneurs, I always encourage them to get more comfortable asking for help.
I found some good guidance on this subject in this classic book, “The Leader You Want To Be,” by Amy Jen Su, a managing partner in an executive coaching and leadership development firm. She suspects, like me, that no self-respecting entrepreneur wants to seem weak, needy, or incompetent, and none of us like to feel indebted to someone we see as a peer or a competitor.
Of course, there are good ways and bad ways to ask for help. We have all been frustrated by some who are constantly taking and never giving, or people who seem to always ask trivial or generic questions. Here are five concrete tips on doing it right, which I am paraphrasing from the author:
- Do your homework first, and ask for help on specifics. Most experienced business people love to help, but they don’t have the time or interest to give you a course on basic business concepts, like the need to be competitive. If possible, you should always couch your questions around a specific case, leading with the options you know or have tried. For example, I will admit that my least favorite question from an aspiring entrepreneur is “Where do I start?” I get much more satisfaction, and can provide more realistic help, in steering you through specific pricing, organizational, or competitive challenges you face.
- Clearly identify key constraints around your request. In business, we all have to deal with real constraints around every unknown, such as a limited budget, not enough time, and fickle customers. I would like to give you my best answer to your question, without first having to ask you a dozen questions before I even understand the context. With my IBM software product background, I could talk at length about competing with other players with big brands, but your problem may be a wealth of small competitors with no brand. I don’t want to waste your time, or mine, solving the wrong problem.
- Don’t assume that no one could possibly help you. Believe me, there aren’t many business challenges or problems that haven’t ever been seen before, in some context. You can cause yourself a lot of work and pain if you assume that nobody could possibly have knowledge or insight on this issue, or at least point you in the right direction. Sometimes asking peers in a different business can actually improve your chances of getting some real help. Bill Gates, for example, readily admits to asking Warren Buffett for insights, and vice versa, and these two are clearly not in the same business domain.
- Start by helping others, and they will return the favor. Not only will this activate the spirit of reciprocity in them, but you will be surprised by how much you learn in the process of helping others. Some of the best business leaders have found that collaboratively working on a problem with your peers yields the best solutions. There are several business peer groups, including Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO), with a stated purpose of providing guidance to peers, in a risk-free environment. With a small time investment on your part to help others, you may be the biggest beneficiary.
- Practice by asking for help from your own team. Not only does this process yield better results than relying only on your own knowledge, but it makes you more comfortable with asking for outside help. In addition, it creates a culture where asking for help is seen as a strength and encouraged, rather than a weakness to be penalized.
Based on my own experience in business, I’m more and more convinced that asking for help, if done correctly and strategically, is actually a sign of strength, rather than a weakness. In this complex and rapidly changing world, it’s impossible to know everything you need to know, and smart business people build real two-way connections with people who have been there first.
If you make asking for help a learning experience, rather than a search for excuses or a perceived weakness, you will find that the best feeling of comfort is less stress and more success in your business and your life.