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Mackay: How to ask for help

  • Article by: HARVEY MACKAY
  • July 14, 2013 - 2:00 PM

A little boy was spending his Saturday morning playing in his sandbox. He had cars and trucks, his plastic pail, and a shiny red shovel. In the process of creating roads and tunnels in the soft sand, he discovered a large rock in the middle of the sandbox.

The boy dug around the rock, managing to dislodge it from the dirt. With a little bit of struggle, he pushed and nudged the large rock across the sandbox by using his feet. When the boy got the rock to the edge of the sandbox, he found that he couldn’t roll it up and over the wall of the sandbox. Every time he made some progress, the rock tipped and then fell back into the sandbox.

Frustrated, he burst into tears. All this time the boy’s father watched from his living room window. As the tears fell, a large shadow fell across the boy and the sandbox. It was his father. Gently but firmly he said, “Son, why didn’t you use all the strength that you had available?”

Defeated, the boy sobbed back, “But I did, Daddy, I did! I used all the strength that I had!”

“No, son,” corrected the father kindly. “You didn’t use all the strength you had. You didn’t ask me.” With that, the father reached down, picked up the rock and removed it from the sandbox.

We all need help at some time. Don’t be afraid to ask for it. As I like to say, don’t say no for the other person.

Successful people rarely reach the top without a lot of help along the way. The ability — and willingness — to ask for help is one trait that really stands out among those who are committed to success.

I can personally attest to the necessity of asking for help. When I was a struggling 26-year-old with the dream of running my own factory, I quickly learned that there were plenty of people whose advice and help would move me toward my goal — but only if I asked. And to my surprise, they were eager to share their wisdom, help me steer clear of potential bankrupting mistakes, and nudge me toward success.

As one who is often on the other side now, I appreciate the opportunity to advise and mentor entrepreneurs and emerging talents. When you are seeking advice from the experts, here are some items to consider:

Don’t waste their time. Once they’ve agreed to help, get to the point quickly. Don’t go through your life story in excruciating detail, or spend an hour explaining your business plan or the plot of your novel. Plan what you want to ask so you can make a clear, succinct request. Take notes so they know you value their input.

Get specific. Don’t just ask, “What should I do?” Imagine you can ask only one question (because that may be the case). Identify the most important issue you’re facing that your expert is qualified to address, and build your question around that.

Save one general question for the end. The corollary to the rule above is to save a few minutes to ask something like, “Is there anything else you’d recommend?” once you’ve gotten the answer to your essential question. This gives the expert a chance to expand on whatever information he or she has shared, and provides the opportunity to start building a relationship.

Give people options. When you approach an expert, ask for permission to probe his or her mind before starting to fire off questions. Give the other person some control over how to respond. It’s polite and shows your consideration for the expert’s time and workload.

Offer something in return. You’re asking for a favor. Be ready to trade services, buy lunch, offer your own expertise, or reciprocate in some other form. This demonstrates your professionalism and commitment to building relationships.

Mackay’s Moral: The fool asks the wise for advice, but the wise ask the experienced.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.

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