The Scariest Four-Letter Word in Business

It was the biggest break in my career to that point, and I was pretty sure I was blowing it.

Let me back up. It was 3:00 A.M. in Stockholm, and I was wearing out the carpet in my tiny hotel room as I paced the floor. There had been a shakeup in my company, and I had been offered a big promotion: from EVP to President of the division I’d been managing as well as responsibility for a new group that did negotiations, purchasing and logistics for a large tour operator. There was just one catch: I had to move to Europe and persuade a group of Swedes to move from Stockholm down to Amsterdam. The plan was to merge them with a team that was already based there. Amsterdam is great, I thought. How hard could this be?

I’d arrived in Sweden that morning with high hopes, but the day had not gone well. No, that’s not quite right. It had been an unmitigated disaster. As I met one-by-one with the existing team in Stockholm, I had discovered that most of these worldly and extremely accomplished employees had absolutely no interest in making the move to the Netherlands. In fact, many of them had already secured other jobs.

“Amsterdam is filthy,” an imperious, blonde Swede informed me. “I would never live there.”

“My family is here,” said another. “My whole life is in Stockholm. Not going to happen.”

By the end of the day, the picture was depressingly clear. None of the Regional Directors – the experienced team leaders who collectively managed negotiations with thousands of hotel chains, transportation companies, guides and sites – none of them was going to make the move to Amsterdam, and less than half of the junior purchasing staff was on board. Out of twenty-some people, I had nine signed up for the move. And most of them were green as grass. Did I mention that this was a year of unprecedented growth and that we’d be facing volumes the company had never before experienced?

So I was pacing. A lot.

The conversation I was having with myself went something like this:

I cannot do this. I have no idea how to do this. I am totally screwed.

It went on like that, with some variations, for what felt like hours. Eventually, I managed to fall into a fitful sleep.

Somehow, when I woke up, I had a plan. Well, “plan” might be dignifying it a bit. I had an idea. I would ask for help. No, again, that is dignifying it. I would approach one of the aforementioned Regional Directors, the woman who had been responsible for the team that managed Spain and Portugal, and I would beg. I would plead. I would throw myself on the mercy of the court. Whatever it took – I was going to persuade her to join me in Amsterdam.

Now, when necessary, I can plead and grovel with the best of ‘em, but I wasn’t really relying on that. I had an angle. During our meeting the previous day, I could tell that she’d felt badly about saying no to the job. More specifically, I thought that she seemed to feel badly about saying no to me. Mostly, I suspect she recognized how completely screwed I was.

Also, she hadn’t been opposed to moving to Amsterdam per se. She had turned me down because she had been offered a slightly better job for a bit more money here in Stockholm. As I remember it, the new job was more or less a lateral move, but the salary was higher, the content was new, and she could avoid the hassle of a move. All in all, taking the new job was a no-brainer for her. Thinking about that had given me an idea.

I arrived in the office first thing that next morning and asked her to meet. “I need your help,” I said. “Honestly, I can’t imagine how I can do this without you. You have expertise I don’t have. Expertise I need.” She nodded. I wasn’t telling her anything she didn’t already know, but it is always pleasant to have your skills acknowledged.

I continued: “I’m creating a new position. Director of Operations. It will have responsibility for four of our eight purchasing teams and will, along with three other people, report to me and lead the group. You’ll get to be involved with setting strategy, and learn how to produce a new product.” (the one they were producing in Amsterdam) “You’ll learn how to manage managers and will have responsibility for a multi-national team of about fifty people spread across five offices.”

Of course this new role also came with a higher salary, but I think the main draws were the acknowledgment that she would have an important seat at the table and a broader set of responsibilities. She accepted on the spot.

I got on the plane and flew back to Boston where I made an identical offer to a talented colleague there to come over and manage the other half of the team. Then, I sat down with my finance guy to crunch the numbers. In the end, because we had shifted to a much less experienced team overall, the incremental expense was modest, and our CEO endorsed the moves. With these two key hires in place – together with a gifted manager of tour leaders and skilled HR and finance execs whom I was lucky enough to inherit – we had the nucleus of what became a phenomenal team. These people had the deep expertise that I lacked and, working together, we had a terrific year.

This brings me back to the title for this piece. Many managers and executives treat “help” like a four letter word. OK, I’m aware that it is one, but you get my point, right? Many people – especially, unfortunately, our most talented individual performers – struggle with admitting where they need help. Others know where they are weak, but don’t do much to offset those weaknesses. They don’t ask for help.

Not everyone is as lucky as I was that night in Stockholm: to be put in a position in which the failure to acknowledge a weakness will lead to certain doom. Often, things are not that clear. Often, it’s not complete failure that we’re staring in the face. Instead, the consequence is merely a weaker response or a suboptimal result. Asking for help is embarrassing, so we just do our best. We don’t ask for help. We settle.

I believe that this is almost always a mistake. It’s an error that often comes from a good place: the desire to solve problems on our own, to be self-reliant. I’m not suggesting you should always ask for help. If you do, you’ll drive your colleagues nuts, and they will, eventually, stop helping. Instead, do these things:

  1. Cultivate a network of trusted advisors. Build relationships with people whose advice and skills you admire. Some will be junior to you, some senior. Make yourself useful to these people.
  2. Maintain those relationships. If you cease to work closely with one of these people, maintain the relationship. This may sound obvious, but I’ve seen boatloads of executives over the years fail to maintain key relationships. A network is like a muscle. It takes work to maintain it.
  3. Be helpful. Try to be helpful to those people. Do NOT simply show up out of the blue whenever you need help. This model is based on reciprocity.
  4. Ask for the help. I mean actually ask. Sometimes someone will try to ask me for help without actually admitting what they are doing. This is very annoying, and it is the prerogative only of people who are paying for the advice.
  5. Be mindful of your own status relative to that of an advisor. If you have a relationship with someone who is senior to you, don’t go to him or her with simple questions. Go only with the big stuff, and – when you do – prepare first, so the person can see you are being respectful of their time. You may have someone else in your network you can go to for the easy stuff. In fact, you almost surely do.
  6. Pay it forward. As your own expertise and experience develop, try to be helpful to other people around you outside your network. In fact, try to be helpful to pretty much everyone.
Chris O'Brien
About the author: 

Chris O’Brien is the Founder of Linchpin Partnerships, and previously held senior leadership roles with The Kessler Group, The Smithsonian Institution and EF Learning.  Mr. O’Brien is a Board Member of Trinity Boston Foundation, and has an MBA from Dartmouth College.  Follow him on Twitter.