Many entrepreneurs and small businesses I know are struggling with business-threatening issues, but are reluctant to seek any assistance.
Some assume that the help will be too expensive or doesn't exist, but I find that others are just horribly uncomfortable asking for any kind of help. This results in personal and business failures that could have been easily prevented.
The fact is that none of us can go it alone in business. We all need people to support us, pick up our slack, and go to bat for us. I have found in business that other people are much more likely to help us than we realize, often for free or a later non-specific payback.
Most people get a tremendous satisfaction from helping others, but are equally afraid to offer without being asked.
I've never really understood this conundrum, so I was happy to see a new book, "Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You," by the well renowned social psychologist, Heidi Grant.
She explains the reasons and research behind why we hate asking for help, suggests the right ways to ask for assistance, and confirms that understanding the impact of efforts is critical to success.
I will paraphrase here the steps she recommends, using my own experience as a business advisor to set the context and examples:
1. The advisor needs to know that you might need help.
The best way to do this in business is to proactively ask someone to be your mentor. The most successful business executives build one or more two-way mentoring relationships with peers.
For example, Bill Gates has a long-standing mentor relationship with Warren Buffett. Mark Zuckerberg openly acknowledges that he was mentored in the early days by Steve Jobs
In my experience as a startup investor, I've always been more impressed with founders who admit early that they need my guidance (as well as my money), rather than others whose ego or fears prevent them from ever admitting that might need some help.
2. The advisor needs to see your requests as sincere.
No advisor or mentor is a mind reader, and most don't want to impose. Thus, if you don't ask, you probably won't get any help. The most common signal that guidance is desired is to establish an Advisory Board that meets regularly, which you support with regular reports and open communication.
I hasten to add that asking for help should never be a request that someone else do your job for you, or provide you excuses for failure. Asking for advisor help also implies that you do your homework first, so that advisors will feel that their time is not being wasted on issues that have obvious answers or trivial implications.
3. The advisor needs to take responsibility for contributing.
As in any relationship, you need to do the due diligence to make sure the advisor or mentor is really committed to you. Some investors, for example, may have their own agenda for your business that is not in your best interests. It's always smart to check their previous track record early.
It's typically well worthwhile to offer financial compensation, or a small equity ownership, to advisors in exchange for a written agreement on the "what" and "how" of their expected contribution.
If appropriate, a reciprocal agreement between two equals, such as Gates and Buffett, may cement the understanding of expectations and responsibility.
4. The advisor needs to be able to provide the help you need.
The ability required should cover experience required, as well as access and time commitments. Often times, people in business want to help, but just don't have the time to spare. Another problem that I have encountered is that smart people are not always able to relate to newcomers.
On the other side, you need to make sure your requests are reasonable, and you are open to receiving advice that is different from what you expected. If you are not willing to actively listen, and quickly become emotional and defensive, most advisors will not be able to break through your defenses and really help you.
In all cases, when you ask for someone's help, make sure you emphasize what the impact will be. And of course, don't forget to thank them for their guidance, and let them know the results of their efforts.
Every advisor needs to know that their help is appreciated, and they have made a difference. Otherwise they lose motivation. We all need reinforcements and support in business.