Asking for the help you need to progress

Asking for the help you need to progress

Is asking for help really that difficult?

Why is it that we women find it easy enough to seek a friend's advice but asking for help, in a formal way at work, seems much more difficult?  It’s an indicator of how challenging many women find the work environment. It seems we are unconsciously biased not to ask for what we want. The figures suggest 93% of women express reluctance when it comes to asking for help. It is one of the 5 areas that hold women back in their career success. The others are visibility, being strategic, talking about money and setting boundaries.

As women, too often our cultural programming tells us to be good girls, be careful and avoid being the centre of attention. And despite having proved our capability through qualifications and achievement many of us will have had experiences that caused us be careful about leaving ourselves exposed. In small ways, everyday this dents our confidence encouraging us to curb our ambitions. What Sheryl Sandburg refers to as ‘leaving before you leave’

How do you make sure you have the support you need?

If this is the case, then it makes sense for women to recognise the need for help and create a strategy to include it in their career planning. However, taking action on this may not be the most difficult part. We first have to, accept that we are worth it and that requires some internal work that enables you to relate your worth to the benefits that can be generated by it. Only when you ‘get’ what you are worth, will the people who can help you ‘get’ it and come towards you. When asking for any kind of help, whether it be coaching, sponsorship, mentoring or just more resources, to make a convincing case we need to have a clear understanding of our contribution and be able to talk about it authentically and without embarrassment. Really successful women don't waste any time wondering about the way they contribute, they are very clear about what it is and they make that contribution in pursuit of a desired result. Nothing else matters. When you are just focused on getting the result, asking for help becomes an obvious necessity. See

What help is there and how can you go about accessing it?

Apart from extensive networking there are 3 more focused ways of gaining the required support and encouragement. These are sponsorship, mentoring and executive coaching.


By this I mean having a structured relationship with someone in an influential position in the same organization as you, usually more senior, who rates your contribution and can see how supporting your career can contribute to his/her own success.

There is much evidence now confirming that being sponsored makes a significant difference to a woman's career prospects.

A high profile example is Sheryl Sandberg who graduated summa cum laude in 1991, and that same year when Lawrence Summers became the World Bank’s chief economist, asked her to be one of his research assistants. Sandberg worked for Summers for two years and then enrolled at Harvard Business School, attaining her M.B.A. and graduating with distinction in 1995. When Summers became deputy Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration he asked Sandberg to become his chief of staff, she accepted the position, and remained in it when Summers became secretary of the Treasury in 1999. She served at Summers’ side until 2001, when Republican George W. Bush moved into the White House. By doing so she was able to, raise her profile in a way that opened many more doors to her later on. This vignette also underlines how important having a strong, ‘all your life’, network is in gaining access to opportunities.

Bear in mind, to get the full benefit from this arrangement it is advisable to be specific with your sponsor about what each of you expects from the relationship

Mentoring and executive coaching

There is often confusion in people's minds about the difference between mentoring and coaching and in truth there is some drift when it comes to defining them. Wiki defines mentoring as “advising from a position of greater knowledge and experience”. An example would be someone in the same industry and/or the same organisation, who is more experienced and can advise you on navigating a challenging set of circumstances. They can tell you who to talk to and telling you who has greater influence. Mentors vary in their ability to help so you are likely to get greater value if you are clear about what you want to achieve and can articulate it. They are vital for developing your strategic capability, which is essential if you are to survive at senior level. Again, take a look at the resources page on my website for information and advice on mentoring and how to find a mentor.

Wiki refers to coaching as “a form of development where a coach supports an individual to achieve a specific business related goal”. It suggests that the difference between this and mentoring is the focus on specific tasks and objectives. Broadly, as an executive  coach,  I agree but for myself I would put more emphasis on the potential for transforming the way you relate to an issue. Whereas a mentor is focused on telling you how to do something they are not usually equipped to deliberately create the conditions for a completely different way of looking at it, although this may happen anyway. Being told how to do something can be enough for an open-minded human being who has no resistance to being successful.

However, as we have established, culturally, women are socialised to hang back in the work place and when their behaviour challenges this cultural paradigm may be viewed as strident and overbearing.

If there is reluctance then, as Einstein pointed out "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it". It is necessary to take someone to the next level by helping them let go of their cultural blocks and gain access their own resourcefulness. Easy to say but more challenging to do! Good coaches have lengthy training on how to do this.

Letting go of our reluctance

Most of the women I interviewed for my book told me they had received considerable help from more experienced people who could see their potential

Although we know this happens, many of us, even the most ambitious, sit with this knowledge without feeling able to act on it, not quite knowing where to begin.

There are several articles on my resources page giving advice on sponsorship, take a look:

It may be difficult to think off the top of your head how to go about getting a sponsor but talking to your network will turn up many more possibilties towards achieving this goal. Once you have decided you will make it happen the deed will be as good as done!

Your next step

Given how challenged we are by asking for help there may be value for you in asking yourself, having heard more about the different options: “What kind of help you need?” and “What is your next step in accessing it?”.

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The seat of confidence

The seat of confidence

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Talking about money