Yesterday, in my post leaders don’t make it comfortable I confessed to being a fixer. I used to spend a lot of time fixing, as I thought it was good leaders do.

As I was writing yesterday’s post, it struck me that my message might be suggesting that leaders should never respond to a request for help. That was not my intent at all. It is totally appropriate and at times necessary.

Responding to a request for help

When you get a request to help what is your first thought? I’ve seen plenty of well-intentioned leaders jump immediately to action. Their actions can be anything from doing something to evaluating the situation and giving advice.

The danger in jumping to action is you’ll end up owning something you don’t want. When your solution fails, will happen if whatever help you give is seen as advice. Are you ready for the trade you will make when you give advice? When you give someone advice, they will hand you the responsibility for the outcome.

There are unintended consequences to being handed responsibility. You will be blamed if your advice results in something which fails. How many times do you hear “I was just doing what I was told?”

Rather than jumping into action, I would propose you start by pausing. Ask yourself what assumptions are you making in this moment?

Then, start providing help by asking a powerful question such as “What does help look like?”

You might discover they want something far simpler than you are assuming. It’s possible they want someone to bounce ideas off to gain a different perspective. Or, perhaps they’re asking you for help because they believe you have the knowledge they lack (whether or not that’s true).

Despite asking questions, the person asking for help may not always know what they want. When this happens, resist the temptation of jumping into action. Instead, I’d propose the following steps:

Put your coach hat on and ask a few powerful questions. Your goal is to help the person get clear on the problem, and what has them feeling stuck. If you don’t know, a powerful question does not have a binary answer such as yes or no. A powerful question invites curiosity and reflection.

When trying to discover what’s needed, one of my favourite questions is “What’s the problem in this for you?” Often the person asking for help already has a lot of domain knowledge. They’re just feeling stuck for some reason.

In putting your coach hat on, they might discover they don’t need you to do anything. They just needed help looking at their problem from a different perspective. Having them find out they don’t need you to do anything is the best case scenario.

Sometimes, though, coaching does not get them past their stuck spot. They’re still stuck and need your help. When this happens, I still would not jump into action yet. Perhaps what they need is a little bit of your experience added to the mix.

Put on your mentoring hat Mentoring and coaching are often confused. In coaching, I assume the other person already has everything they need. They need help getting out of their own way. In mentoring, they need your knowledge and experience to help get unstuck.

By this point, you’re likely pretty clear about what has this person asking for help. You can only put on a mentoring hat if you have experience with the topic. In other words, do not offer your wisdom for a topic which you have no experience. (Eg. I could not mentor anyone on flying an airplane, as I’ve never flown an aircraft)

When you mentor, you are going to give advice. To avoid owning the outcome, provide at least three options and ask questions. The way to do this effectively is to offer the options one at a time followed by a powerful question.

An example of providing an option might go like “I’ve tried XXXX in the past. If you were to try that, what might be different about your problem?”

Mentoring may not take the form of how to solve a problem directly. Mentoring can focus on navigating the company to find the help which will get them unstuck.

At times, I come to see coaching and mentoring has failed to get the person unstuck. Does that mean you have no choice, but to take action?

You could say “No” This simple word, might be one of the most powerful words available to leaders. Yet, it’s one of the most underused words in the corporate environment.

Before jumping into action, you might want to ask yourself a couple of questions. Is doing this thing for the other person the right thing to do? Do you want to do this thing? Or, are you doing this out of obligation?

If jumping into action is out of obligation then you might want to practice the skill of “no.”

Time to roll up your sleeves. At times, you will find yourself rolling up your sleeves. When this happens I like to remember two important things:

  • What is the least amount I can do to get them past their stuck spot?
  • What is needed to ensure I transfer ownership back to them in the end. For example, I might take them with me through every step, so they know how I got past the problem

A time for definitive action

You might be thinking of examples where such a process is inappropriate. I would agree there are times your action is the right thing to do.

For example, someone has just collapsed clutching their chest. When someone has a heart attack is not a time for coaching, mentoring or any other such stance. It is is a time for definitive action. “You go call 911. You get the AED in the hallway. You start …”

In the normal course of business, though, there are very few of these situations. They happen, but they’re far less common than you might think. With all the best of intentions, I witness leaders jumping into action as a normal course of everyday business.

Leaders help

It all sounds so clean and simple? Leading and working with people is rarely so simple that I can give you a 1200 word post that will apply to all situations.

Leadership is your ability to respond to what happens. Developing your ability to respond is something supported by structures and skills. As you build such muscles, you will find your ability to respond becomes second nature.

In the case of asking for help, this means having and using my mental checklist:

  1. Am I starting with assumptions or facts?
  2. Put on my coaching hat
  3. Put on my mentoring hat
  4. I could say no
  5. Roll up my sleeves

Develop your leadership checklist when asked for help, or feel free to use mine.

Never lose sight that as the leader your responsibility is to help others succeed. When you jump into action and fix their problems, you limit their ability to grow and therefore thrive.