Ask and ye shall succeed

On embracing the help of others

large piece of chocolate layer cake

Maybe it’s because I was raised in a family of eight children. If you didn’t act on your own behalf, e.g., grab a piece of cake before it disappears or get into the bathroom when it’s (rarely) free, you found only disappointment and yourself to blame. I grew up and into the workplace with a sense that I had to do it on my own; that asking for help was a mark of weakness or ineptitude.

So I took all my schooling and experience, and charged head on into every communications job I landed. I thought if all the work I produced wasn’t entirely my effort, I couldn’t take the credit or shoulder the blame, the latter a more anticipated prospect, unfortunately.

Earlier in my career, I would take direction to produce a newsletter, write a news release, produce facts sheets or create a marketing plan, and I would do all these things by digging deep to use my own ideas and craftwork to meet the project goals. This approach usually resulted in appreciation and success, but too often I got it wrong. I might have misunderstood the original direction or went too far down a creative path that didn’t align with the vision or missed the mark on the audience or was too quick to involve vendors before it was time. I put pressure on myself to produce and produce well and quickly, without the instinct to leverage those who knew more than me. I didn’t go to my boss or colleagues or other sources of information (this was, if you can imagine, before Google) because I thought this would show me up as lacking somehow.

I didn’t clue in to the faulty nature of this approach on my own. I guess I got better at creating good work that reflected the stated goals and did so with less mistakes and misjudgement. But, still, that internal pressure drove my career. It wasn’t a motivator, a confidence-building belief that I could take on any communications project and make it work. It was the kind of pressure that had me teetering between feeling like a reliable professional and a frightened failure-in-waiting. That internal conflict pumped stress into my bloodstream every workday for years.

It was well into my second decade as a communications pro when a supportive boss sat me down and said, quite casually, “You know, Marianne, I never get a sense of how you’re doing, what challenges you’re facing. You don’t have to work on your own. In fact, I need to know more from you. I want you to involve me in your projects. That’s what I’m here for.”

What? This was a concept that, naive as it sounds, I hadn’t considered. I received this message, first, with a sense of shame that I had let my boss down and, then, with a growing appreciation. I saw my work habits from his perspective and understood how my self-imposed expectation to do everything on my own kept him squarely out of the loop. I got a glimpse of what had been motivating me to keep things to myself and saw the negative impact it was having on my work, and workplace relationships.

I gradually found there to be great relief in sharing details of my plans, aspirations and challenges with my boss. I still owned my position but I also allowed the same for him. Ironic though it is, I was a communicator who was resistant to sharing information. After seeing this simple fact more clearly and understanding how my personal fears and insecurities had infiltrated my career (a common phenomenon), I started to free myself from them. It wasn’t always easy, or successful, but I forced myself to solicit input and share my ideas, even before they were cooked!

I wonder if it’s a common theme for us communications pros – wanting to present work as a polished, finished product, shining with perfect grammar and every angle covered. Whatever the instigation, I believe we can benefit from reminding ourselves that it’s not perfection we’re after but good, solid work that reflects our ideas and values, and is made stronger with the input and insights of others. Asking for help, we enhance our work by simultaneously standing behind it and opening it up to improvements. It’s a self-respecting and skills-building pursuit that upholds the time-worn suggestion that two heads are better than one.

With thanks for reading,