The Empowering Ask for Help
How do you lead a team of people who know more about what they’re doing than you do? Does it erode your credibility as a leader if you ask your direct reports for help? Can you lead if you don’t have the answers? A mentee recently asked me about this. She was assigned a new team of direct reports and she was concerned that she wouldn’t have credibility as a leader if she didn’t show up with all the answers. She wondered if she should spend her time getting really good at all the things her team was really good at. She was worried that if she asked for help from the folks she was managing, they would doubt her ability to lead.
I grew up in business as a marketer, but have progressively expanded my purview to lead teams in communications, editorial, product, technology and design. In my experience, managing teams with strengths that aren’t your own is an opportunity for growth for everyone. Leaders have the opportunity to expand their aperture and learn from their teams. Team members get a new perspective on their work from outside of their disciplinary bubble, and often think about their work in new ways.
A well framed question is half answered. An answer that comes from group dialogue belongs to everyone involved. Leaders who ask compelling questions bring far more value than those who show up with all the answers. Sometimes, the most empowering thing you can do as a leader is to ask the people around you for help. Ask for help to understand what your teams are doing and why they’re doing it that way. Ask them to lend their perspective and expertise to the challenges you’re facing.
Most days, I walk into situations where it takes me a minute to figure out exactly what we’re solving for. And many days, as it turns out, that’s precisely why I’m there. Recently I was working with a set of teams responsible for different aspects of our mobile app landscape. There were product folks concerned with how well the app was working, media folks concerned with how efficiently we were directing traffic to our app, SEO folks concerned with the impact of our organic mobile traffic driving efforts, and engineers focused on building our mobile experience.
We came to the table to discuss the source of a concerning pattern in our user data in order to align to a plan to improve. After an overview of the data and the challenge, each team leader was asked to share their perspective on the source and solution to the challenge we faced. Each team came to the table with analytics related to their slice of pie. Just about everyone also came with hypotheses about what other teams could do to improve. In some cases, teams had discussed these hypotheses with one another. In many cases, this was the first time these ideas were presented. In listening to the discussion, it was clear that we had adjacent teams who were very focused on their piece of the puzzle but nobody at the table considered themselves accountable for the bigger picture. As the leader of these teams, I’m accountable for the bigger picture. And, the work of an individual team gets more powerful when it’s connected to the greater whole. Each of the leaders at the table needed to broaden their definition of success — from excellence in their piece of the puzzle to their contribution to a coherent and impactful whole.
We took a step back from solving and I asked the teams to share exactly what they were doing and why. I invited the rest of the group into a dialogue, connecting the dots among the teams’ work. It became clear that some efforts were being duplicated, some were in direct conflict and precious few were designed to reverse our concerning macro data pattern.
As a leader in this situation, my job was to ask the questions of a group of experts in pursuit of group alignment to a plan that is cohesive, collaborative and clear. I didn’t come to the table with the answer and frankly, I don’t know that I could have come up with as powerful a solution as the team came up with together. I asked for help and the result was shared understanding and most importantly, a shared solution.
When I ask my teams to share context and background, I’m challenging them to articulate not just what we’re doing but to articulate why this is the best way forward. I’m asking them to lead with their expertise. It’s an opening to a constructive conversation around existing and potentially new/different solutions.
Some days I’m in rooms with people whose expertise is so specific and deep, it’s clear that I’ll probably never fully grasp the finer details. I am not trained as an Elixir engineer or a data scientist, and it’s not an effective or efficient use of my time to try to become an expert in either discipline. But it is my job to help lead and influence these teams to prioritize the things that will have the most positive impact on the business. I ask my teams to be my partner, to help me understand, and to bring me along. This kind of ask for help from a manager or leader can be incredibly empowering — it establishes a context of partnership vs hierarchy. It creates an opportunity for a team member to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding and strategic agility. It creates a tangible experience of shared understanding, and often leads to deeper connection. And if you’re lucky, it opens everyone’s eyes to a better, brighter, bolder way forward that belongs to everyone in the room.