1st Job: 10 Secrets to Asking for Help

Asking for Help on the JobThe idea of “learning in public” in your first job means you’ll need to rely, in part, on others to share their experience and knowledge.

In our last post we talked about the intimidating state of learning in public once you’re in that first job after college or b-school.

Some fields have structure where newness is acknowledged, and learning is fostered in formal training. For example:

  • In industry trades, apprentices train for up to six years to master their craft under the tutelage of a more experienced crafts-person
  • Teachers have the chance to practice student-teaching with an experienced guide helping them through the introductory classroom experience.
  • Doctors spend years in residencies before they can append “M.D.” or other letters to their names.

And then there’s you.

For many new careerists, unlike the examples above, there isn’t a clear ramp-up program to get you on your feet. And for any new careerist, there’s a certain amount of learning that comes only through your relationships with others.

Often this will include the dreaded task of asking others for help.

No matter how much you dread this, it is an inevitable part of starting your career. Unfortunately the first job often includes this self-imposed stigma of feeling “dumb.”

To the contrary, I want you to feel empowered and confident when you ask others for help! Learning how to do this will speed your induction process, and give you a great building block for your career.

10 secrets to asking for help

Instead of seeing it as an admission of weakness, see asking for help as an opportunity to reach out and build relationships with others as you learn. Here are some tips for doing so:

1. Assume that people are willing to help you. Don’t you enjoy being asked to share your insight on something or help someone beat a level on Angry Birds? Others do as well. Start by knowing that nearly all people want to share their expertise with you.

2. Don’t apologize.  If you start every request with an apology, how good will you feel about asking? Apology implies that you SHOULD know something you legitimately don’t. It also dis-empowers you and sabotages your confidence. Be polite, be respectful, and don’t start by apologizing.

Listen to the difference between this request and the example in Points 3, and 4.

“Hi John, I’m really sorry to bother you; I know you’re super busy. I hate to have to ask you this question; since I’m new I still don’t know all this, but….”

3. Give context and time-frames. If you’re working on a customer issue that’s urgent, say so. If it’s something for the team, let them know. Who will fault you for trying to solve a customer problem or support the team’s mission?

“Hi John, I’m working on the Salk Customer project and I’d like to get this issue resolved for them today so that we’re in compliance with our service agreement.”

4. State the issue clearly.  Provide the facts, the objective, and the specific issue.

“The installation is complete and correct. The software is loading nicely and in compliance with the terms. We need to get the report function working so test reports can be pulled tonight. However, we continues to get an error message when we ask for the report.”

5. Share what you’ve done to resolve the problem on your own. This lets people know you are “learning to fish” rather than just asking to be fed the answers. It demonstrates your problem solving capability. It also builds your confidence.

“I’ve tried tweaking the request code, we’ve consulted the manual and called the central help desk; we also had a software guy work on this.  It is still not working properly.”

6. Ask a specific question. Get to the answer you are looking for. If you ask a vague question, you’ll get a vague answer. It also helps to let them know why you are asking them.

“What else should we try to resolve this issue by the end of the day?” or “What other resources might we access to correct the issue?” or “What technical checklist can we go through to make sure the pieces are all in place?”

“I know you’re a content expert in this area, and I am hoping you can point me in the right direction.”

7. Be courteous, respectful, and appreciative. Ask respectfully. Thank generously. Offer your help to them in return if there is ever an opportunity. Everyone appreciates knowing that they’ve been helpful.

8. Write things down. Most people will be happy to help, but if you start asking the same question repeatedly, it’s annoying. Don’t be annoying.

9. Tell others how helpful that person has been. This is good gossip. Spread it.

10. Follow up! After you’ve resolved the issue, share what you’ve learned, and let your adviser know what happened. It’s proactive on your part, and demonstrates your professionalism. S/he might also earn something from your experience!

What’s your experience been in asking for help? What have you found when you apply a structured and empowering approach, versus one that starts with an apology?


Guest Expert:

Lea McLeod, M.A. wants organizations to build talent funnels by hiring college grads who stick around because they’re highly engaged and satisfied at work. She wants grads to be ready for the work, and, feel empowered and confident in the process of transitioning from college. Her “Developing Patterns of Success™” workshop reveals the knowledge, skills and capabilities critical to workplace success from the first day on the first job. Formerly a Fortune 15 executive who kept busy leading global teams, Lea found great satisfaction in mentoring young professionals to deliver business-changing results. Find her at www.leamcleod.com.

We are grateful to all of the industry career experts for the top advice and experience they share with our MBA professionals. MBA Highway wouldn't be where it is today without them and their contributions.

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