On Asking for Help

On Asking for HelpI’m still relatively new at my job, and there is a lot I don’t know. I’m not familiar with all aspects of the company. I’m focusing on a different segment of the healthcare industry than where I cut my teeth. I’m learning the ins and outs of a back-end technology that is new to me. All of this means that I need to ask a lot of questions at work, and it’s weird.

Not that I’ve ever had a problem asking questions; like everyone, I’ll sometimes avoid asking something if I suspect it’s a really obvious answer, but in general I don’t mind raising my hand when I don’t know something. What I’m not used to anymore is asking so many questions. When will I know things again? When will people ask me things again? (That I actually know the answers to!)

As part of the New York Magazine series on advice from successful women that I’m semi-obsessed with, they interviewed Reshma Saujani,  founder of Girls Who Code. She credits her success to being willing to ask questions repeatedly and assertively:

I think you should always ask for help. Part of the success of Girls Who Code is that I am a hustler. When people ask what my biggest strength is, it’s that I’m shameless. I will ask people for help even when I don’t know them.

I find inspiration in Saujani’s words, to a point. I think she’s right that shame has no place in professional discourse. If you need help to accomplish something, you should ask for that help and feel good that you’ve taken a step to get closer to your goal. Where I disagree with Saujani is in her advice to be relentless about repeating the request when the first question goes unanswered:

Personally, when people are really aggressive and email me over and over and over again, I’m like, “Okay, fine, I will find the time to meet with you.” I respect that fearlessness, and that doggedness. 

In my own career, I’ve learned that it is a very small world. The people I ask for help today might be people who need my help a few years from now. People who I’ve helped are suddenly fellow event attendees, business partners, or coworkers. Extending help when asked helps set the stage for effective future relationships, but there’s also the need to try to make giving the help worth someone’s while. What’s in it for them? Will having a conversation with them to offer your expertise and help expose you to some interesting information, offer you the asker’s valued perspective, contribute to a product or service whose success you care about?

Personally, and particularly now that I find myself needing to ask more than I am used to, I do try to help when I’m asked. I find that I’m most willing to do so when the person asking for my help has been thoughtful about any mutual benefit in our working together, and is respectful of my time and resources. I try to reflect these qualities back in my own requests to others.

Ironically enough, as my own need to ask for help has grown with my new job, my ability to offer it has diminished. I’ve increasingly grown to see that the ability to extend help is dependent on my current time and resources, and those are in short supply as I try to learn a new company and role while also maintaining my other activities. Like so many other things in life, asking for and receiving help follows a cyclical pattern, waxing and waning with other circumstances.

All of this is to say, Saujani is right that shamelessly asking for help is part of the recipe for career success. I disagree that being relentless with the same person and same request is also part of that recipe; in fact, it can be disrespectful. Instead, can you structure the request to show mutual benefit? Can you direct the request elsewhere, to someone who may be more inclined or able to help? Can you ask when a better time might be to revisit the need for help, if a particular individual’s perspective is irreplaceable? Chances are, the person whose help you’re seeking will be someone you encounter again; the way you ask for help can create an opportunity for that next encounter to be positive or not.

How do you ask for help? How do you like to be asked for help?