Asking for Help Means Learning to Grow

By Marshall Goldsmith

I found early in my career that some of the top corporations frowned on their staff asking for help. 

For example, when I was consulting with IBM at its headquarters in Armonk, N.Y., I discovered that its gold-standard management lacked an essential component of good management: coaching. That’s because an atmosphere had settled on the company where people were discouraged from even thinking that they needed help on something. 

I learned in working with people on my Life Plan Review, or LPR, that its process helps people overcome the obstacle of asking for help. The LPR is meant to move you forward in life through accountability. In fact, it’s a mechanism for accountability, consisting of four steps — 

  1. weekly meetings where you answer fixed questions with a partner to improve your life 
  2. self-monitoring between weekly meetings
  3. a weekly plan review based on its relevance and your personal need
  4. the importance of not doing it alone 

Back then, at IBM, I also found that one-on-one coaching between managers and staff— which begins when an individual reveals his or her vulnerability and says “I need help”—was barely on anyone’s radar in the corporate environment. 

Something that resembled coaching took place in highly technical fields—medicine, the performing arts, craft trades like carpentry and plumbing—in which skills were passed on in a traditional master-and-apprentice relationship. But this wasn’t coaching. It was just a more intimate, hands-on form of teaching. It was a finite process by which eventually the apprentice learns enough to graduate into expertise. 

Coaching, on the other hand, is an ongoing process, as open-ended as our desire to continue improving. The difference between teaching and coaching is the difference between “I want to learn,” and “I need help to get better and better.” 

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I didn’t fully appreciate this distinction during my time with IBM  in Armonk. As with most consequential advances in my career, clarity began a few months later with someone else’s suggestion—in this case, a phone call from the CEO of a major pharmaceutical company. 

I had just given a leadership clinic to the human resources department at the CEO’s company. He attended the session and must have heard something that struck a nerve. He had an unusual request. He said, “I’ve got this guy running a big division who delivers his numbers every quarter. He’s a young, smart, ethical, motivated, creative, charismatic, arrogant, stubborn, know-it-all jerk. Our company is built on team values, and no one thinks he’s a team player. It would be worth a fortune to us if we could turn this guy around. Otherwise, he’s out of here.” 

I had never worked one-on-one with an executive before (the field of executive coaching as we know it today did not exist), and certainly not with someone who was one click away from the CEO’s chair at a multi-billion-dollar company. 

From the CEO’s terse description, I had met this fellow many times already. He was the kind of guy who had triumphed at every rung of the achievement ladder. He liked to win, whether it was at work, or playing darts, or arguing with a stranger. He’d had “high potential” stamped on

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his forehead since day one in the workplace. Would someone whose entire life was an affirmation of always being right accept my help? 

I had taught plenty of midlevel managers in groups before. These were people on the verge of success, but not quite there yet. Could my methods work with someone who was demonstrably successful and make him or her more successful? 

I told the CEO, “I might be able to help.”

The CEO sighed. “I doubt it.”

“Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll work with him for a year. If he gets better, pay me. If not, it’s all free.”

The next day I caught a return flight to New York City to meet the CEO and my first one-on-one coaching client.

I had a big advantage with that first client. He had no choice but to commit to being coached. If he didn’t, he’d be out of a job. Fortunately, he had the work ethic and desire to change. He got better, and I got paid. 

But as I picked up more clients like him, I learned to create an environment in which a leader did not feel embarrassed to ask for help. 

It harked back to the paradox I noticed at IBM: The company’s leaders thought coaching was valuable for employees, but not for themselves. This was nonsense, of course. 

None of us is perfect. 

We’re all flawed human beings. 

We all should be asking for help. 

My breakthrough was reminding my accomplished clients of this eternal truth.

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