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Asking for help is something that seems taboo in many company cultures. After all, most leaders seem to have all the answers, shouldn’t you?

Many see asking for help as a sign of weakness, but they’re wrong. Asking for help is necessary when learning a new skill, taking on a new responsibility or when struggling to deliver results. However, I’ve seen many who struggle to master the art of asking for help only to appear as uncertain and less confident.

Still, no matter your career level, it’s unrealistic to have all the answers, which is why I want to share a key leadership tactic that will help you approach your asks differently.

Asking for Help vs. Asking for Rescue

Knowing how to ask for help vs. asking for rescue can make or break how you lead. This concept was posed to me by a very talented woman who was on a fast-track career path and needed to develop an entirely new set of skills. She constantly felt inadequate and the subject matter she was learning was unfamiliar. She wondered, ‘Is this ever going to make sense?’. The only way she demonstrated asking for help was put in a way of pity — “I’m just lost, and I don’t know what to do here,” she would say.

Asking for help versus asking for rescue is the difference between being specific and being general. Asking for rescue is when your ask is unclear. It often has a tone of uncertainty and is seen as a desperate cry. Asking for help is specific to a situation or moment in time and is actionable, insightful and logical.

Why Is It So Hard to Ask for Help?

We’ve all been there at one point or another, perhaps some of these approaches sound familiar.

  • They’ll think I’m incompetent. As tempting as is it to want to appear to have all the answers, you have to spend just as much time listening and seeking out information as you do sharing it.
  • I’ll figure it out – Taking on a new assignment alone and not having an understanding of the support and knowledge you’ll need to ensure the project’s success often results in late deadlines and last-minute fires.
  • I want full credit. If we’re really honest with ourselves, sometimes we just want to take full ownership of the project’s success. However, the key to being recognized as a leader is when you can prove you can actually collaborate with others to ensure successful outcomes.
  • It’s a silly ask. Some questions seem silly to ask. However, sometimes your intuition will pose a thought into your head because it’s essential for you to know upfront. These seemingly small questions can often serve as a north star at the very beginning.

The consequences of not mastering the technique of asking for help can be detrimental and lead to serious career consequences. Here are four tips that will position you for success as you master the art of asking for help.

  1. Identify your assumptions – What assumptions are running in the back of your mind that need validation? If you find yourself saying, ‘I’ve got this,’ but you really need more information, there’s a way to learn more by asking a validating question. Ask yourself, ‘Is there something else I should consider before I move forward with this assumption as a foundation?’
  2. Know when to ask – You’re a competent person, otherwise you wouldn’t have been assigned the responsibility. Change your self-talk to one of confidence. Therefore, if you have a question it’s probably for a good reason. When you ask early you show preparedness rather than if you wait until the last-minute.
  3. Know who to ask – This is an important concept to understand. When you’re asking for help, anyone who demonstrates know-how about your concern should be a target for your question. When you’re asking for help there are only a handful of people with whom you would ever have an emotion-based conversation. The goal is to engage with key leaders whose input is critical to your success. And remember, don’t open up with your emotions. Instead, be specific about what it is you want to learn by asking for help.
  4. Know how to ask – Anyone can tell when someone is overwhelmed. When people are clear, focused and feeling on top of their game you can see that, too. It’s all about a mindset. Having a high competency level and an assured belief in yourself is key when asking for help. You don’t want to look or sound desperate. Desperate questions make it look as though you’re drowning – you want to sound calm, insightful and inquisitive. This helps position you as someone with a solutions mindset. It also helps promote an appearance of confidence and calmness.

NOTE: The questions you ask don’t have to be complicated. Here are some examples.

  • Here are a few things that seem to be barriers for me and/or my organization — how did you overcome these?
  • What are the three or four things you would tell yourself to do now that would have better prepared you for success early on?

There are, of course, different ways to frame these questions. However, you’ll notice none of them sound desperate — all are insightful.


I’ll leave you with this final story.

When I was given marketing at Sam’s Club, the brand identity strategy was lacking. The numerous changes of company presidents seemed to always pair with a new brand identity crisis. The strategic question challenged with each leadership transition was always – should we focus on the business member, consumer member or both?

I simply didn’t have experience to understand the importance and priority of each member type at a deeper level. The layers of brand identity and how to deepen the relationship with loyal Sam’s Club members just wasn’t in my wheelhouse at the time. I knew I needed help.

So I reached out to the Walmart Stores Chief Marketing Officer, Paul Higham, who understood branding inside and out. I brought in a brilliant merchant, as well as an external resource on branding. Together, we held a one-day session to really dig deep into the fundamentals of brand marketing and consumer behavior to equip me in a more strategic way.

Asking for help is not just bringing in people who are ‘smarter’ than you, it’s bringing in people who can truly collaborate with one another and bring great ideas to the table.

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