For many women in leadership positions, seeking help can be a bit of a Catch-22. Female leaders often feel extra pressure to project confidence at all times. Yet that self-assured air will get you only so far. Eventually, you’re going to need help from colleagues or from junior staff — even if you’ve already asserted that you could handle the job at hand. When that day comes, it’s helpful to keep a few guidelines in mind that will get you extra support, without undermining your own authority.
Evaluate Your Time Constraints
If you’re trying to decide whether to shoulder a large project yourself or whether to delegate, it helps to take a realistic look at your deadlines. There’s no denying that splitting up work with others takes time — time to evaluate who’s right for which task, time to explain the project, and time to review the completed work. But often, this investment of hours at the beginning of the project can save days or weeks in the long run.
The same concept is true whether you’re asking members of a team you oversee to do extra work, or whether to ask a supervisor to transfer some of your workload elsewhere.
If you can provide a timeline which breaks down the scope of work for each component, you’re only highlighting your leadership qualities — not undercutting them.
Read the Room
In a true emergency, you may not have another choice but to hit the panic button. But most of the time, it’s better to be strategic about how you seek help.
Is there a staff meeting in which you can make a pitch for more team members to join you? If you have a collaborative working environment and an upcoming meeting scheduled, this might be the best way to ask for help. On the other hand, your company’s culture may be more geared to going through proper channels. If so, make sure to ask the appropriate person. “Poaching” staff out from under another supervisor, or putting people on the spot during a meeting, is rarely a good look.
Most importantly, try not to communicate panic unless there’s simply no other choice. Bursting will only elicit irritation — not admiration. In the short term, you’re potentially short-circuiting his or her willingness to help. Longer term, you’re leaving an impression with the people around you that you don’t have the steady temperament a good leader requires.
Choose the Right Person for the Right Job
A crucial aspect of designating work involves looking at who should be doing what. You may not always have the luxury to do this, of course. But whenever possible, take some time to evaluate the skill sets of everyone who will be helping you. For example, the more polished team members can make pitches to outside sources, or act as spokespeople. Your most organized staffers can be put in charge of a trade show booth, or put together a last-minute PowerPoint presentation.
It’s also helpful to think about what your helpers seem to enjoy doing while at work, as well as what their aspirations are. Maybe you need to get some press releases written and your boss’ intern was a journalism major. That intern will be most likely to take on the task with enthusiasm.
Use Precise Language
Once you’re in over your head, it’s a natural impulse to simply send out a widespread “S.O.S.” But you’ll be exhibiting stronger leadership qualities if you take the time to communicate specifics. This precision not only gets the job done more quickly, but it prevents your colleagues from wiggling out of the request. You need to short-circuit tactics such as, “Oh, I thought you just wanted me to say the budget looked fine. I didn’t know you needed me to research current prices on the line items.”
Again, one of the most important aspects of asking for help is being explicitly clear. Don’t just say what is needed, but also when it is needed. You might dread asking a colleague to go to the printer first thing in the morning. Yet if not doing so will torpedo your entire project, there’s no point in hoping that others will magically offer to drop everything for the errand.
Send Them Off With a Toolkit
It doesn’t matter whether you’re heading up a whole team or overseeing just one or two people. You’re not going to command respect if you issue vague reassurances that, “They’ll figure it out once they get going.” Give those helping you what they need.
The “tools” will depend on the task, of course. It might include relevant contact information, or a template from a previously completed project that’s similar to the current one. If they need actual equipment to complete their tasks, don’t just assume they have it. Arrange for a conference room to spread out, or a workstation with the right software. If the project is going to need funding, don’t assume the other department has the budget to cover it — or worse still, that an underpaid assistant can pay upfront for reimbursement “in the near future.”
Don’t Make Them Reinvent the Wheel
If you’ve already face-planted while attempting a crucial task, it’s important to be honest about this. If you’ve already been turned down by a major sponsor but don’t admit it, you’re only setting up your teammates to be blasted by the same executive. By the same token, a social media campaign that went nowhere should be admitted to — rather than have the same disaster play out publicly yet again.
Give Credit Where Credit’s Due
You probably haven’t risen to a leadership position without a few painful memories of others taking ownership of your work. Stop that “legacy” in its tracks. Make it clear the successful completion of a project was due to the various people on the team.
Aside from this practice being the most ethical way to do business, it also prompts your colleagues and staff to consider you an effective leader — rather than an opportunist.
Make Post-Mortems Fun Again
Often, when a stressful event has come and gone, everyone wants to forget about it as soon as possible. Yet the folks who helped make it happen deserve to be recognized. The scope of the work will obviously determine how much of a fuss you need to make.
If a group stayed late to help you get your mailing out, a box full of donuts will probably suffice. But a complex, long-term project deserves a thank you-lunch. At the very least, schedule a brief meeting in which you take time to mention the efforts of each person involved.
And don’t forget — whether it’s a big task or a little one, those who helped always appreciate a thank you-email that’s cc’d to “the big boss.”
Often, rising leaders come to a point in which they realize the leadership qualities they once thought of as crucial for a “captain of industry” or “revered entrepreneur” are only part of the puzzle. Just as a good leader helps develop the skill sets of those around her, she must also improve her ability to seek help where needed.