Asking for help demonstrates confidence and self-awareness (1/2)

There is a cliché phrase “don’t bring me a problem, bring me a solution”, which taken literally, sends the wrong message: “if you’re struggling, figure it out on your own”.* This concept is often celebrated. As a result, particularly with new leaders or folks who are in a new role, there tends to be a desire to try and always present an air of confidence – “fake it until you make it” – and mask the extent of overwhelm or struggle that might initially be experienced. It’s silly, since every professional has experienced some degree of insecurity or imposter syndrome throughout their career and especially when taking on a new role, challenge, or learning a new skill set.

As a professional builds expertise in tackling meaningful challenges, they become accustomed to calibrating the resources, effort, and timelines required to succeed. They understand what reasonable and unreasonable expectations are. They better understand how to prioritize and manage multiple priorities. As a result, well counterintuitive, to confidently and assertively conclude an objective is unreasonable, or impossible, and to start to craft a plan around how it could be made achievable, actually demonstrates a really strong grasp of the situation.

Let’s say your new Software Development Manager, Katy, comes to you and says “Dave, now that I’ve been here for 30 days, I’m certain we won’t be able to reduce the technical bug backlog this year to the extent the executive team wants. The pace of incoming bugs is simply too great relative to our output. I know we can get more efficient with better training and a new prioritization process, but I don’t think it will be enough. I’m wondering whether we might be able to reprioritize some of the planned tooling spend and put it towards an additional hire. I’m not certain that’s the answer but I have a few other ideas I wouldn’t mind seeking your input on. Can we figure this out together?” Katy is demonstrating her own competency by recognizing the issue, considering plausible solutions, and seeking help.

Let’s contrast that with Jeremy. You hired Jeremy as your new Finance Director three months ago. By all accounts, it seems like Jeremy is struggling. You keep hearing side comments and anecdotes about balls being dropped by his team: invoices aren’t going out on time, you’re identifying errors in financial reporting you shouldn’t be, and Jeremy constantly seems flustered. But every time you check in with Jeremy, he says something along the lines of “I’m a little overwhelmed Dave, but don’t worry. I’m all over this! I just need another month or two and we’ll have it all sorted out”.  

At face value, Katy is telling me she won’t be able to accomplish the team’s goal for the year and needs some help to figure it out. Jeremy is telling me it’s all good, he’s on top of it, and I don’t need to worry. The reality is I am building meaningful confidence and respect for Katy and I’m wondering if Jeremy has any clue what the hell is going on.

Every ambitious professional has experienced a period where they feel completely overwhelmed. And as your career progresses, you typically take on bigger roles, which are associated with more responsibility and accordingly more pressure. Strong performers are seen as being all over their work and their teams. They have a great handle on the projects they oversee. So it can be tempting to act like everything’s going well, even when it isn’t (I’ve certainly done it). But there’s a catch: when you’re struggling, it’s always much clearer to those around you than you might suspect. As a result, seeking help can be an incredibly powerful demonstration of competency, maturity, self-awareness, and expertise.

*There is a specific counterpoint to this, which resonates with me. I’ll touch on this next week.