How to Accept Your Manager’s Help Without Sounding Incompetent
I love everything about staying at a nice hotel except for one thing.
It’s the sight of a doorman (so far, I’ve only encountered men) coming to open my car door, offering to help with my luggage and insisting on holding the door open for me to walk through.
While he’s smiling, my brain is in overdrive: Does he think I’m weak? Do I look incapable? Is he just angling for a tip?
Of course, he’s just doing his job. The issue is that I’m fiercely independent and struggle to accept most kinds of help.
While rejecting the assistance of a doorman is not a big deal in the scheme of things, when it comes to your career, being comfortable to accept – and even welcome – offers of support is essential.
Yet it’s easy to feel nervous about accepting help from your managers
Like my client whose boss offered to help her get up to speed on everything about the business and support her as much as possible in her new role.
She asked me, “this is great but how do I let them know what I don’t know without them thinking maybe I’m not the right person for the job?”
I’ll share my answer here in case it helps you too, and it’s about these three steps:
- Let go of the fear factor
- Identify the “buckets”
- Get permission to come back for more
Let’s start with the first step.
Let go of the fear factor of being found out for not knowing everything
It’s impossible to know everything there is to know. This is especially true when you’re in a new role.
Remember that your managers chose you for the job, and they want you to succeed. It’s also costly for hiring managers to “get it wrong” – it’s bad for their reputation and there’s the hassle of having to manage someone out and go through the hiring process all over again. So your interests are aligned.
Instead, appreciate what great managers you have. All too often, you’re left to “sink or swim” on your own. But if you have a boss (or two) who wants to set you up for success, treasure them.
And go forward with confidence in your ability to learn and gratitude for being part of an organization that wants to support you.
Which brings us to the second step.
Identify the “buckets” where you could potentially need guidance
Map out the areas that you think you’re expected to know about and see where you feel comfortable with your knowledge versus where there are gaps. That will give you a clue as to where your manager can be most helpful.
In my experience, no matter who you are, what business you’re in and what stage of your career you’re in, your success comes down to three main areas: how you work with People, how you work on the Business and how you work on your Self.
On the People side, the biggest help your managers can provide is helping you understand who the key stakeholders are – both internally and externally – and helping you build those relationships.
For example, when I first transferred to London to start a new role, I asked my manager who I needed to get to know and spent the first month meeting them. My manager not only helped develop the list, but also made introductions for me where needed.
This is at the core of being able to navigate the organization well, and that’s a key to your success. Understanding the power structure (vs the formal org structure) is key. And having trusted relationships, or at least not being on the wrong side of those people, will be essential to your getting things done and being successful on behalf of your unit.
From the Business perspective, it’s about understanding what makes the business tick – what’s the strategy for the organization overall and how does your department contribute to that? How are decisions made and what’s the organization’s appetite for taking risk? And what are the main priorities for the unit?
To come across as being the right person for the job even though you feel like you don’t know everything (by the way, no one knows everything!), it’s helpful to take a stab at answering those questions for yourself first. That way, you can come into the conversation with your manager with your observations and hypotheses.
For example, when I was given responsibility for a business unit that had three main product areas, I wasn’t sure where to focus the team’s efforts. But I didn’t want to come across as uninformed or just taking orders. So when I met with my manager I said,
“The way I see it, we’ve got Product X which represents 70% of our revenue but it’s a mature market and we’re fighting to retain top 5 in market share, Product Y which is new but applies to just a subset of our clients, and Product Z which is low margin.
I know we’ve got limited resources and I want to make sure we’re focusing on the right priorities. Depending on where you see our priorities as a division, I could make a case for allocating our efforts in different ways. I’d be interested in your thoughts.”
That led to a productive conversation where my manager revealed that the sales & trading division was planning to put a focus on Product Z. And we agreed to shift our attention to Product Z while maintaining market share with our mature product X and pursuing a targeted effort on the niche product Y.
From the Self perspective, it’s going to be more about how you can utilize your manager as part of your ongoing community of support.
Which brings us to the third step.
Build in regular catch ups
It’s impossible to set out a curriculum that’s the complete set of knowledge you’ll need for the entire year. That’s why it’s important to get your manager’s permission to have ongoing conversations where you can bounce ideas off of them and get their advice. These can be regular meetings or ad hoc depending on how your manager likes to work.
Think of this as taking a master’s degree program and also having access to “office hours” with the professor. These catch ups also allow you to check in with your manager on how you’re doing so you can make mid-course adjustments and adapt as things change.
But what if your manager hasn’t offered support?
If your manager doesn’t come to you proactively, you can still adapt these steps to guide your manager to help you, especially steps two and three.
Start by identifying the “buckets” of where you have all the knowledge and resources you need and where you could use some advice and insight. Then take the initiative to set up a meeting where you can talk through one of the gaps and get permission to come back when you have other ideas to bounce off of your manager.
Don’t sit back and wait for others to come to you. Take charge of your own career and go out and get what you need, whether that’s from your manager, mentors or outside sources.
Just don’t make the mistake of thinking your managers are “friends and family”
When your manager offers support, this is not a life preserver you cling onto like a drowning person. They’re still your boss and they’ll be forming impressions as all humans can’t help but do. So don’t treat their offer as an invitation to let all your insecurities hang out.
Remember, it’s all about how you approach them.
Instead of “help, I have no idea how this works!” try “I’m interested to understand how this works”. And rather than leading with apology language such as, “I feel like an idiot for asking this, but…” just start into your question.
Accepting help is a sign of confidence
It’s people with the confidence to keep learning and growing who welcome input, advice and support.
So when your manager offers their support, accept it with gratitude. And remember to:
- Let go of the fear factor – assume positive intent and allow them to be a great manager
- Identify the “buckets” – map out the areas you’re expected to know and the identify gaps in your knowledge and experience where your manager can help
- Get permission to come back – build in regular catch ups so you can get advice on an ongoing basis (and form a stronger relationship with your boss!)
Which of these steps will most help you advance in your career?
I’d love to know so please leave me a comment.