Marshall Goldsmith On The Lost Art Of Asking For Help

We’re all flawed human beings. We all should be asking for help. Reminding yourself and your company’s leadership of this eternal truth is one of the essential tasks for anyone in—or outside—of business today. A guide.
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In his coaching practice, Marshall Goldsmith has advised more than 200 major CEOs and their management teams.On July 19, join Goldsmith for an exclusive master class based on his brand new book, The Earned Life. He’ll dive deep into his new, practical framework for decreasing regret and increasing fulfilment, helping you become more productive—and more present in your life. Register here.

During nearly four decades of coaching 200-plus CEOs and their management teams, Marshall Goldsmith has learned a few things about the obstacles that even the most successful people face in creating more fulfilling careers and lives—and how to overcome them. He’s also adept at distilling lessons gleaned from working with a broad array of leaders across industries into universally applicable advice, insights and tools in best-selling books like Triggers, Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, How to Get It Back If You Lose It and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

This excerpt from Goldsmith’s new book, The Earned Life (Currency, May 2022), explores one of the faultiest premises plaguing corporate America: the idea that acknowledging the need for help is a weakness rather than a strength. It’s something every business leader—and every company—would do well to understand and address. Here’s how. 

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Among Peter Drucker’s many uncanny management predictions is this: “The leader of the past knew how to tell; the leader of the future will know how to ask.” 

The myth of the self-made individual is one of the more sacred fictions of modern life. It endures because it promises us a just and happy reward that is equal to our persistence, resourcefulness and hard work. Like most irresistible promises, it deserves our skepticism. 

It’s not impossible to achieve success on your own to the point where it could be accurately described as self-made. The more salient question is: Why would you want to when you could surely achieve a better result by enlisting help along the way? An earned life is not more “earned” or glorious or gratifying—or even more likely—because you tried to achieve it all by yourself. 

Too many of us try to go it alone. Our near-clinical reluctance to ask for help is not a genetic defect, like color blindness or tone deafness. It is an acquired defect, a behavioral failing we are conditioned to accept from an early age. I didn’t learn how companies slyly discourage asking for help in my organizational psychology classes in grad school. I had to learn it on the job. 

In 1979 I was working at IBM headquarters in Armonk, New York, at a time when IBM was the most admired company in the world, the gold standard in management. IBM had a problem: Its managers were not perceived internally as doing a good job coaching their direct reports. I was called in to review the program being used to train managers to be good coaches. Over the years they had spent millions of dollars on the program—with negligible improvement to show for it. Managers were still bad at coaching direct reports. I was invited to Armonk for a firsthand look to figure out what went wrong and why. When I interviewed employees, it typically went like this: 

First, I asked the direct reports: 

Q: Does your manager do a good job providing coaching? 

A: No. 

Then I asked the managers: 

Q: Do your direct reports ever ask you for coaching? 

A: No, never. 

Back to the direct reports: 

Q: Do you ask your manager for coaching? 

A: No. 

Curious about IBM’s performance appraisal system, I analyzed the employees’ year-end reviews and discovered this IBM definition of a top performer: “Performs effectively with no need for coaching.” Basically, IBM had created a vicious cycle whereby if the manager offered coaching, the employee was incentivized to respond, “No, thank you, boss. I perform effectively with no need for coaching.” (You can’t make this up!) 

I’d like to say IBM’s dilemma was unique. But it wasn’t; they were merely the platinum-plated example of companies making the same mistake. It started at the top rungs of IBM management, few of whom would debase themselves by admitting they needed help. To ask for help was deemed a sign of weakness. You asked for help when (a) you didn’t know something, (b) you couldn’t do something, or (c) you lacked resources. In other (more pejorative) words, you asked for help because of your ignorance, incompetence, or neediness 

None of these is a good look. Since people in any organization tended to model their behavior on their bosses’, the CEO’s attitude about seeking help swiftly flowed down the hierarchy and settled in place for everyone to emulate. Sure, corporations actively hired trainers to teach classes on generalized topics that we had learned in business school—teamwork, situational leadership, decentralization, total quality, Six Sigma, “excellence” and the rest—but these were more like the continuing education courses doctors and CPAs are required to take to maintain their accreditation. 

As for one-on-one coaching between managers and staff—which begins when an individual reveals his or her vulnerability and says “I need help”—it 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.” 

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

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, playing darts or arguing with a stranger. He’d had “high potential” stamped on his forehead since day one in the workplace. Would someone whose entire life was an affirmation of always being right accept my help? 

Needs Exercise

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 on a more elite flight of executive material on a one-on-one basis? Could I take 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 harkened 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. 

One of the ways I did this was by asking them to list all the things they could do as 

a leader to support the people they worked with. I called this the Needs Exercise: What do your people need from you? 

They’d rattle off the obvious stuff: support, recognition, a sense of belonging and purpose. Then they’d go deeper. People needed to be loved, heard and respected. They needed to feel loyal to something and receive loyalty back in return. They needed to be fairly rewarded for doing a good job, not overlooked or discounted. 

“That’s a lot of neediness among your staff members,” I’d say to my client. “What about turning it around on yourself? Admit that you need the same things. You’re no better than your employees. One or two of them might even become the organization’s leaders after you’re gone. They are you.” 

I wanted clients to see that by trumpeting their roles as supportive leaders and, in the same self-contradictory breath, asserting that they do not require equal support themselves, they are demeaning their employees and the dignity of their needs. This doesn’t go unnoticed by the employees. It is a massive failure in leadership. 

Since successful leaders recoil at the thought of failing at anything, it didn’t take clients long to overcome their shame and abhorrence for the phrase “I need help”—and accept coaching. They recognized that they would perform better with help, not without it. It’s amazing that smart people had to be told this, but those were the times. Nowadays, the widespread demand for executive coaching is evidence that the company values its leaders and is willing to pay for them to get better. 

The Need for Approval

The more I conducted the Needs Exercise with clients, the more I noticed that needing anything, whether it’s help, respect, time off or a second chance, has somehow evolved into an object of derision in the workplace, a character flaw, a weakness as objectionable as being ignorant or incompetent. 

The reviled need that continues to baffle me most is our need for approval. If you google “need for approval,” the first 100 entries describe it as a psychological defect, selectively illustrated by cringeworthy behavior such as valuing the opinions of others more than your own, agreeing with people even when you actually disagree and praising people in order to be liked by them. When did seeking approval or recognition become a bad thing, a synonym for phoniness, sycophancy and tactical dissembling? How did seeking approval or recognition get demoted to neediness? 

In the workplace, I believe our problem with approval, like our problem with asking for help, starts at the top. My experience with successful leaders is that they’re sensitive to employees’ need for approval and recognition and are adept at providing it. But for the same reasons they won’t admit they need help, they’re reluctant to acknowledge their own need for approval or recognition. A leader’s internal sense of validation—i.e., self-approval—should be enough, they tell themselves. Anything else is grandstanding, the equivalent of turning on the Applause sign for yourself. Net result: the CEO’s attitude filters down the line until approval and recognition are denied their rightful place throughout the organization. 

This “do as I say, not as I do” hesitation to seek approval even infects experts on the subject. My great friend Chester Elton is the world’s authority on the value of recognition in the workplace. I asked whether he encountered this reluctance to seek recognition among leaders he’s worked with. 

He said, “I may not be the right person to ask. I went through a period in my life when I was feeling really down. So I wrote a note to a dozen friends saying, ‘I talk about recognition all day. To be honest, I can use some recognition myself right now.’ I received a dozen wonderful letters that made me feel fantastic. They revived me.” 

“Sounds like you’re the perfect person to ask,” I said. 

“That was one time, 20 years ago. I never did it again,” he said, recognizing his do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do error. “But I should, and I will.” 

For many years now, helping leaders accept and emphasize their needs has been a big part of my coaching. Sometimes it’s the only advice they need. 

Coaching Joly

I started coaching Hubert Joly in 2010, when he was CEO of Carlson, the privately owned hospitality giant in Minneapolis. I did my usual setup routine: I interviewed Hubert’s direct reports and the Carlson board of directors, distilling their feedback into two reports. First I sent Hubert the report of all the positive feedback, advising him to appreciate it. The next day I sent the longer report about his negatives, telling him to digest it slowly. Although he was already a respected leader, of the 20 executive bad habits I’d listed in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Hubert, by his count, was guilty of 13. His big issue was thinking he always had to add value, out of which flowed his other issues, such as needing to win too much and passing judgment. 

Then we met, and I could see where his reputedly excessive need to be right came from. He’d been at the top of his class at the most elite schools in his native France. He’d been a star consultant at McKinsey. In his 30s, he became president of EDS-France, then moved to the U.S., where he eventually rose to the top of Carlson. But I also learned he was a bit of a religious scholar who’d collaborated with two monks from the Congregation of St. John (they’d met at business school) on articles about the nature of work. He was well read not only in the Old and New Testaments but in the Koran and the teachings of Eastern religions too. I liked him immediately. 

I didn’t belabor the bad habits in his report. I told him to pick three he wanted to work on and commit to improving. Then the coaching process began—the apologizing to colleagues for past behavior, the promising to do better, the asking for help and the grateful acceptance of feedforward advice. 

Two years later, Hubert became CEO of Best Buy, where he faced one of the biggest challenges in American business: saving a big-box electronics retailer competing on price against Amazon. Hubert’s improvement before he started at Best Buy was so significant, he could have taken a victory lap and ended our coaching relationship. But he didn’t, for two reasons: (1) he was committed to continuous self-improvement, having grown very comfortable with expressing his need for help, and (2) he wanted his new colleagues at Best Buy to see the self-improvement process in practice. So he invited me to come along for the ride as his coach at his new job. He went public with his need for help, in effect telling his staff, “I have a coach. I need feedback. You need feedback too.” 

His strategy for Best Buy was to compete with online retailers not on price, but rather by offering better “advice, convenience and service.” This meant that when a customer came to one of Best Buy’s 1,000-plus showrooms, the floor people had to be so knowledgeable and enthusiastic that the customer would have no reason to buy anywhere else. In other words, Hubert was betting the store solely on the employees of Best Buy. 

As Hubert became more acquainted with Best Buy and we discussed how to get the workforce behind his strategy, he came up with a remarkably counterintuitive strategy. Hubert wasn’t going to help the employees in the usual top-down management approach. Quite the opposite. He would ask them to help him. He would expose his vulnerabilities publicly to them, acknowledging his need for help at every step. He would ask for their approval, not in the form of personal “Do you like me?” assurances, but rather in the form of their “buy-in” and commitment to his strategy. Like a great salesperson always asking for the order or a savvy politician never forgetting to ask citizens for their vote, Hubert’s ask went deep and close to the bone. He asked employees for their belief in his strategy by asking for their “heart.” And they gave it to him. All he had to do was ask. 

In the course of transforming Best Buy—during which the stock price quadrupled and Jeff Bezos of Amazon would say in 2018, “The last five years, since Hubert came to Best Buy, have been remarkable”—Hubert transformed himself as a person as well. To his employees he became a human being, imperfect and vulnerable, willing to admit he didn’t know everything and therefore willing to ask for help. He joined Alan Mulally and Frances Hesselbein as one of my three most successful coaching clients—Alan and Frances because they had to change the least (they were already great when we met and became even greater), Hubert because he changed the most. 

Ask For Help

If I can leave you with only one piece of advice to increase your probability of creating an earned life, it is this: Ask for help. You need it more than you know. 

You would not hesitate to call a doctor if you were in extreme physical pain, a plumber if your sink was clogged, or a lawyer if you were in legal trouble. You know how to ask for help. And yet there are moments in each day when asking for help is clearly the better choice and you decline to do so. Beware two situations in particular. 

The first is when you are ashamed to seek help because doing so will expose your ignorance or incompetence. The teaching professional at a golf club once told me that fewer than 20 percent of the 300 members at her club had ever taken a lesson from her. They were too embarrassed by their faulty swings to let her help them. “I pay my bills giving lessons to the 30 or 40 best golfers at the club,” she said. “They only want to shoot better scores. They don’t care how they got there or who helped them. Their scorecard doesn’t care either.” 

The second situation begins when you tell yourself, “I should be able to do this on my own.” You fall into this trap when the task you’re facing is adjacent to knowledge or a skill you think you already possess. You’re driving through a familiar neighborhood, so you should be able to reach your destination with no need for directions from your phone’s GPS. You’ve given speeches before, so you don’t need a friend’s helping ear to fine-tune a wedding toast or your most important sales presentation of the year. 

I do not have this problem anymore, which is why “Did I do my best to ask for help?” is no longer on my list of basic Daily Questions. I declared victory in this battle many years ago, when I asked myself what task or challenge in my life could be more profitably and efficiently dealt with alone rather than with solicited help from other people—and couldn’t come up with an answer. You should too.

Consider all the times someone—friend, neighbor, colleague, stranger, even foe—has asked you for help. Did you 

• refuse them, 

• resent them, 

• judge them to be stupid, 

• question their competence, or 

• deride them behind their back for needing help? 

If you’re like most good people I know, your first impulse was to help. You’d demur only if you lacked the capacity to help—and you’d probably apologize, regarding your inability as somehow your failure. The one response you wouldn’t offer is an instant and outright no. 

Before you reject the idea of asking others to help you, consider this: If you are willing to help anyone who asks for your help without thinking ill of them, why would you worry that other people won’t be as generous and forgiving when you’re the one seeking help? The Golden Rule, by definition, works both ways, never more so than when help is on the table. 

An even more meaningful question: How have you felt when you have helped others? I think we can agree that’s one of the great feelings, right? Why would you deprive others of the same feeling? 

WRITE YOUR HISTORY OF HELP 

Here is an exercise in recovered memory and humility. 

DO THIS: Make a list of your five to ten proudest achievements, particularly the ones where the accomplishment felt well deserved. Now imagine you were invited to receive an award for each achievement, and you were expected to give a thank-you speech in front of all your relatives, colleagues, and friends. Whom would you thank? And why? 

I suspect you’ll find in each case that you did not succeed without help. I’m not talking merely about instances of unexpected luck and serendipity, but rather the gifts of other people’s wisdom and influence that helped advance a project or avoid a catastrophic misjudgment. Without this trip down memory lane, I suspect you will always be underestimating how much assistance you have received in your life. 

Once you appreciate all the help you’ve either forgotten or failed to credit in your life, you are finally ready for the alarming payoff of this exercise. You can imagine—and kick yourself with regret—how much more you could have achieved if you had asked for help more often. Now extend your imagination forward: Where do you need help in the future? And who are the first people you would ask to help you? 

Excerpted from The Earned Life by Marshall Goldsmith (Currency, May 2022)


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