Why Leaders Need to Ask for Help – and How

Here’s a simple trick for resource-constrained education organizations that want to get more done more effectively:

Get help. From the right person. At the right time.

Get help.
Every school, nonprofit and foundation has its own set of pressing needs. Perhaps there’s a mission-critical problem that needs to be addressed. Or a tremendous opportunity for impact that needs to be leveraged. Yet, when faced with these needs, education leaders often resist seeking help. Instead, they default to internal resources.

At first glance, the D-I-Y approach seems less expensive. After all, staff time is already paid for. Unfortunately, leaders often underestimate the complexity of a task and the time and expertise needed to complete it. A senior leader at a successful charter management organization recently admitted over coffee that when faced with a problem he often has to negotiate with his already overworked team members to put in “B-grade work to fix the latest problem in exchange for doing C-grade work on some other project”. The hidden costs of doing it all in-house – including time taken away from other projects, the cost of fixing missteps and the risk of staff frustration and burnout – can quickly add up.

Research shows that individual and organizational performance improves when we seek help. And when done right, it also builds internal knowledge and skills that boost performance over the long run. So, yes, it helps to get help.

From the right person.
But not just any kind of help. The same research also revealed that asking for help only pays off when the person providing help has relevant expertise. Now this might seem obvious to those of us who have stood by in anticipation-turned-to-helplessness-turned-to-horror as a friend enlisted to fix a plumbing issue futilely tinkers away with tools and pipes while the kitchen slowly floods. Yet, it turns out that in practice people often prioritize familiarity and comfort over actual expertiseAsking for help makes us feel vulnerable. We worry that by putting our organization’s problems out there, we might undermine our work and look incompetent. As a result, we often rely on friends we know and trust (and who speak in the same acronyms!) even when their know-how is barely better than ours.

But while this approach feels less threatening, it can rob us of the opportunity to learn and grow. The right expertise can also help us get to solutions quicker and more efficiently: by dint of their experience, experts often know what questions to ask and can recognize patterns and leverage existing knowledge and tools. Perhaps most importantly, an external expert – who is less likely to have imbibed the organizational Kool-Aid – might be more willing to bring up the elephant in the room and share fresh and divergent perspectives.

I suspect another reason why organization leaders stick with people they know is because they believe their problems and organizational contexts are unique. While this might be true at the margin, most of the challenges faced by organizations are depressingly similar. The good news is that this means (a) we don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time and can leverage the knowledge and expertise that already exists and (b) we can judge someone’s expertise by looking at their success in solving similar problems in the past.

At the right time.
I’m no longer surprised when an Executive Director admits during a project scoping conversation that the project they’ve listed with us has been on their organizational to-do list for years.

The danger with this approach is that stalling can result in lost opportunities and let minor challenges grow into full-blown crises. A crisis in turn requires more organizational resources to resolve. Worse, while it’s brewing, it eats away at precious organizational energy and momentum.

So when is the right time? Obviously if the house is on fire, you call 9-1-1 right away. But what about those problems that simmer away in the background? Here’s one thumb-rule that works for a friend: The third time something comes up in a team/board meeting, he gets help.

Bonus: And in the right way.
Is there a “right way” to get expert help? Based on our experience at Catalyst:Ed helping schools, nonprofits and foundations connect with experts quickly, reliably and affordably, we definitely think so:

  • Be specific about your challenge and the help you need: Organizations are often vague about what they’re looking for. “We need a fundraising person” could mean anything. A rigorous process for scoping out projects provides organizations clarity about the problem that they are trying to solve and arrive at a definition of success. The scope also helps experts gauge their interest and “fit” for a project.
  • Reach out to folks who bring the right expertise: Don’t settle for good intentions. Don’t settle for vague expertise. Instead seek out professionals who bring a track record of success in the exact problem you need solved.
  • Get multiple bids: Even if you have a fallback option, do yourself a favor and get at least 3 bids. One of the other bids might surprise you. At the very least, you will have enough information and can consider trade-offs before taking a decision.
  • Connect before you decide: Assuming you’ve done your due diligence by going through the steps listed above, it is absolutely appropriate for you to connect with the expert options who meet your bar to gauge alignment and “fit”. The beauty of this process is that you don’t have to choose between process and intuition. You can leverage the best of both!

So there you have it. Get help. From the right person. At the right time. And ideally in the right way.

You’re welcome!

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