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Why do senior managers sometimes immediately accept external help without stopping to think, on other occasions take an age to accept help or in extreme cases, do their level best to avoid accepting help at all? If the objective is to achieve our personal and professional goals as quickly, impressively and painlessly as possible, we must first come to terms with the fears that hold us back from asking for help. Particularly in situations, where all visible evidence suggests we are highly likely to miss our targets (first four months sales are 50% below year-end projections), we are being asked to accomplish something others haven’t achieved before (launching new product in a virgin territory) or we are potentially in harm’s way (our job, our reputation or the respect of peers).

I remember as a child several actual and perceived fears that I immediately came to terms with, progressively addressed or did my level best to avoid.

James Berkeley
James Berkeley

The first, the fear of crashing my Father’s car and physical harm as a 7yo, after accidentally dislodging the handbrake while sitting alone in my Father’s Jaguar on a steep incline in a city street, while he was in a nearby shop picking up some ski clothes.  That sense of helplessness was probably a few seconds but it felt like 30 or more seconds, when three passers by hearing my cries for help, ran into the street, two of them propping up the rear, and one jumping into the passenger seat and re-applying the brake.

The second, revising for examinations. I enjoyed studying but I found it hard or lacked a clear process for memorising and applying critical information to specific examination questions in the teenage years of my life. For different reasons, I shrunk away from addressing this weakness. By chance, a geography teacher introduced me to the early concept of mind-mapping, which when I arrived at University dramatically improved my ability to memorise and construct intelligent, logical and powerful responses.

The third was swimming. From the age of 4 until 13, I hated swimming. Or more precisely, I couldn’t swim beyond a few strokes. The overwhelming majority of kids would happily dive bomb into the pool at family and other social gatherings, and put their hands up to race in school swimming galas. I would do my level best to avoid going near those events. I would immerse myself in cricket, tennis and so on. When I arrived at public school, aged 13, in the first week of the Summer Term all kids had to swim a length of the school swimming pool unaided. There was no “out”. I immediately failed that test in front of all my contemporaries in my year and was assigned to “extra” swimming lessons. Once I got beyond the immediate embarrassment, week by week with a patient swimming teacher, Mr Drewett and a “float”, I made progress, 10, 15, 20, and 25 metres, increasingly without any aids. Finally, I was able to swim the length of that pool unaided. Hallelujah! Today, I look back with amusement. I am not the most proficient but I am over those “fears”. My wife laughs that she hopes this is one talent our daughter inherits from her (school swimming champion), not from me.

My point here is that as Senior Managers we can choose to embrace new ideas and external help, we can hide from it or we can run away from them.

  • 1. We need to be honest with ourselves first. Is this fear real, perceived or catastrophic? Ask yourself, if I do nothing based on visible evidence, what are the probable consequences? (loss of my job, unflattering appraisal or career-ending) Do I genuinely have the competencies and passion to achieve my agreed goals based on all known evidence? If not, where can I get qualified help?
  • 2. Asking for help is a sign of personal strength, not a weakness. People with high levels of self-worth readily accept that the acquisition of new skills and behaviours is fundamental to improving one’s self-confidence and future success. Do I have the right mindset or do I need to change my beliefs?
  • 3. Asking for help ahead of time is infinitely superior to the highly important or critical “after-the-event” need. In much the same way, businesses buy an insurance policy rather than fund losses from available cash, so surrounding you and your key people with qualified external “help” at the outset, is far less costly than hiring turnaround help for an under-performing sales and marketing unit 6, 12 or 18 months down the line. Have I surrounded myself with sufficient reasonable and appropriate expertise for the challenge ahead? Note, the intangible benefits (peace of mind) are often higher than the tangible benefits (reduced risk of missing sales targets).
  • 4. Fear (fear of embarrassment, failure, physical harm and so on) can become paralysing in your business if left unchecked. It requires YOU letting go of those fears and willingly taking action. In much the same way, the novice skier freezes on the baby slope, the sales person freezes at the first point of client resistance or your self-talk is such that you freeze when asked to account for the disappointing monthly sales with your direct report. Only you can improve the situation.

Profitable growth of businesses, particularly mid- large-sized organisations, is largely about a small number of executives and managers ridding themselves of those fears, accepting accountability and surrounding themselves with the skills and behaviours needed to achieve their business goals. It is also about their direct reports and peers establishing trusting relationships with those people tasked with making it happen and remaining vigilant.

When the business grows globally or in greater complexity, physical or “virtual” distance can create a geographical or emotional detachment between the local profit centre head and their direct report (reduced face time, availability and social discourse etc.). So organisations need to learn to adapt, leverage technology (multimedia communications), schedule appropriate time and embrace external help for preventative AND contingent reasons.

James Berkeley helps profit centre heads, typically SVP-level, dramatically improve their operating performance in a high growth market. He and his firm, Ellice Consulting Ltd. has attracted clients such as Ericsson, Carlson, Caesars Entertainment, Travelers and over 75 leading organisations around the world. For further details, please contact James Berkeley  at +44 203 440 5072 or [email protected] 

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