Asking For Help Is A Sign Of Strength

"No one gets fired for asking for help and people who, during difficult times, do ask for help do better than those who don't."

That's the statement I often found myself saying to new starters and mentees during my later years at IBM.

Now I find "Building a helping culture" has become a key part of my strategy for making agile scale, endure and improve at the enterprise level.

Reading the "IDEO's Culture of Helping" in the January 2014 copy of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) has some great data and insights in to the value of a helping culture. This backs up what I've experienced.

So for the curious; why did IBM, an organisation not known in recent years for it's internal altruism, put such emphasis on building a helping culture and how did this surface?

What's in it for the organisation?

The HBR article describes two main benefits :-

  • Higher productivity

  • Greater innovation

  • Higher staff retention

There is a key benefit that's not mentioned in the article. Risk reduction to both the brand and the bottom line.

An example of this was on a complex and very public programme with one of IBMs customers. The programme involved both the systems integrator (IBM Global Business Services) and the software (IBM Software) part of IBM along with a number of other systems integrators and third parties. The programme was attempting to use agile using the approach recommended by a small agile consultancy that had clearly over stated it's ability at this scale. Within a few months of starting, the programme was in poor shape. At this point the IBM team asked for help. They reached out to the network of IBMers that knew how to do agile at scale well in order to get the programme back on track.

The brand and business risk was greater than any egos on the programme.

Both large and small organisations care about risk hitting the bottom line but large enterprises highly value their brand reputation. Having a helping culture where if you don't know something you're encouraged to get help to find out is an excellent risk mitigation strategy. Having others pro-actively provide help also drives out the risks you may not even realise you had until an experienced second pair of eyes takes a look.

In the areas I was fortunate enough to work in during my 7 years at IBM they all worked hard to encourage an environment where asking for help was seen as a sign of strength. This stretched from the software labs, to the systems integration division and even in to the sales teams. Sales people are typically single minded, lone hunters, but it was common place to see the more experienced successful sales people helping those with less experience close a deal for no direct reward.

How did IBM encourage the helping culture?

*Give Back*
All the helping is bundled together in a concept called Give Back. This is a collection of things you do above and beyond the specific activities in your job description.

During the performance review process one of things considered is the list of "Give Back" activities you've worked on, preferably supported by emails that have been sent by the recipients acknowledging your help.

The level of "Give Back" was one of the factors determining whether you were considered average, above average or excelling on the bell curve performance review process (I'm not a fan of the bell curve approach). The improved ranking helped towards your next promotion as you needed a certain consistent high score to be considered.

It actually had a double benefit during career advancement. Not only did it give you a higher performance review score but you were also expected to describe the help or "Give Back" you'd contributed to as part of the evidence supplied to the professions promotion board. If there were only so many promotion spots available, your "Give Back" could be the deciding factor.

The idea behind promoting those who understood that helping was important was that it would bake helping in to future leadership.

In some teams receiving bonuses there was also an indirect link between a proportion of the bonus and the amount of "Give Back".

What forms did help come in?

In IBM there were a number of ways help was available to give and to get:

Your Team
This was the most common and I've received and hopefully given a lot of useful help. Although bell curve based performance systems can easily kill this dead. These can pitch team member against team member in organisations where someone has to receive the lowest grade and potentially go on a performance improvement plan to "save" their career. IBM had this performance process and I believe it caused more harm than good but in spite of this incongruent system, help still happened in the teams.

Your Network
I joined IBM from a small company (less than the now magical top Dunbar number of 150). One of the most helpful pieces of advice I was given during the first few weeks by an IBM Executive was, "build your network, and build it as widely in IBM as you can." In a matrix organisation, delivering complex programs across the world it was key to getting things done.

You Communities
There's another article yet to be written about the value communities brought to IBM. I learnt a huge amount about the value of communities when transforming organisations. The value communities add is greatly significant when you need to scale a change and make it sustainable and self-improving. Encouraging people to get together to solve their own common problems around the change is an excellent way of scaling the change. They can help each other simply by sharing what has and hasn't worked, the community members then become amplifiers of that help out in to their network.

Your Mentors and Mentees
IBM has a strong mentoring culture. If you wanted to progress your career you were expected to have mentors and mentor others. The broader your circle of mentors and mentees the better. This spreads the helping culture through the organisation.

"Leaders don't make followers, they create more leaders." 
Tom Peters

I was fortunate enough to have a number of excellent mentors - thank you if any of you are reading this. Some of my mentors have since left IBM and have become friends as well as mentors. If only for the great friendships I made through their helping, I am grateful for my time with IBM.

The Bottom Line

Asking for help is a sign of strength. IDEO think this and the recent study seems to bear this out. If you're not building this in to your organisational culture you're missing a huge opportunity.

But we're not IDEO you say. I say if IBM, an organisation that is predominantly financially driven, believes that it's employees asking for help is a sign of strength; showing maturity in managing risk, improving productivity and innovation; what excuses do you have?