Ask for Help – Trust – Collaboration

Photo by Kamaji Ogino on

Several years ago, I had the privilege of joining Kevin Carroll and Jamie Mustard on their morning radio show in Portland.  Kevin is an internationally recognized performance coach.  Jamie is a communications consultant and thought leader. (I was in rarified air.)  At the end of the conversation, Jamie asked me a simple question, “What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?”

My answer was relatively straightforward:  Ask for help.

Since that time, I have come to understand how often people and organizations ignore those simple words.  People almost never ask.  In our pursuit for excellence, we wrongly assume that we need to develop solutions ourselves.  Somehow, we convince ourselves that no one else has ever faced the challenges we are tackling.  Worse, we assume that we can do it better, even without the relevant experience.

The truth is someone has likely invested the time, resources, people, and even engaged a network of advisors to tackle your problem.  They have already faced your challenge, and conquered it.

Why don’t we ask for help?

I believe the biggest reasons we don’t ask, are that most accomplished people don’t want to admit they have an issue to begin with.  Worse yet, they might have to admit that they don’t readily have the answer. 

In addition, most people also wrongly fear that their organization’s leaders want them to build the solution themselves.  They incorrectly assume that an admission that you don’t have the best answer calls into question their competence in their role.  I believe our fears around both of these reasons are generally unfounded.  In over 20 years of leading in organizations, I have never experienced a situation where a senior leader punished someone for looking outside the organization to come up with a better way to do something.  Leadership wants the best solution, not our best solution.

How do we give our teammates permission to ask for help?

Removing fear and shifting people’s search for excellence beyond themselves can be a challenge.  I believe it begins with modeling the behaviors we want to see.  How often does your team or colleagues see you asking for help?  I try to bring my real world examples into situations where we are exploring options – inside and out.  I have a personal board of directors, that I am intentional in engaging.  They are very wise counselors, and often have better answers than I do.  I reference them a lot when encouraging my teams to grow beyond what they know.

There are times, when we have to force our teams to use external advisors to “kick start” the process.  Recently, I asked two of my teams to develop a new process to improve coordination of our go to market activities.  After several conversations, it became clear that they were going to be challenged delivering on my request.  I connected with a very experienced former colleague, and asked if he would be willing to share his wisdom.  I then connected my team with him.  The result, they had a much better understanding of the project, and were able to move very quickly to deliver.  Not only did our organization get better, but now I have a recent example of how using external advisors can deliver outstanding results.

Questions are key as well.  Do you understand?  Have you done something like this before?  Do you have an idea who you might ask for advice?  These questions need to become part of our normal repertoire.

“He that is taught only by himself has a fool for a master.” – Hunter S. Thompson

Why does it matter?

I believe that the pursuit of excellence requires a holistic gathering of information.  I also have found that most breakthroughs are built on the expertise and achievements of others.  When we continuously looking inside for our best answers, we create smaller and smaller opportunities for excellence.  We also reinforce a behavior of pursuing expediency instead of excellence.  I think of it as if we were entering a cave.  With each decision, we get deeper and deeper inside, with fewer and fewer choices.  In the dark, with the walls closing in, our opportunities become narrower – and our chances for a world-class breakthrough almost nil. If we can create a behavioral norm, where we – and our teams – are constantly pursuing the very best solutions, from an ever-expanding group of wise counselors, our ability to achieve breakthrough results improve.  With each victory, we will also seek to replicate the behaviors – often.

5 Keys to Cross-functional Partnership.

Business team giving a high five

In organizations, silos are the norm.  Most organizations just don’t collaborate cross-functionally very well.  Most managers and leaders assume that their teams are working together as part of the “normal process” of the company’s operations.  Unfortunately, its rarely true.  The results are predictable.  Confusion.  Alienation.  Dysfunction.  Blame.  Low morale.  Poor performance.  Addressing this organizational malaise is actually simpler than most leaders realize.

No blame, just solutions.

Before a group can collaborate at a high level, the members have to trust each other.  Bringing the groups together is not enough.  When beginning a journey to harness  cross-functional partnership, the first thing a leader must do is set expectations that will blossom into trust.  What I have found most effective, is establishing ground rules that 1) no one is to blame, and 2) we are focused in finding solutions.  Those two simple ideas have way of freeing team members from the history of organizational behaviors, and unlocking new ideas and approaches to solving problems.  Organizations don’t build these silos intentionally.  There are good reasons for the behaviors that drive us.  What we need to do as leaders, is give our teams the freedom to jettison that baggage of the past, and architect the new behavioral norms, free from fear of retribution.  Being declarative about the new expectations, along with consistent repetition, can begin to change behaviors quickly.

Understand the common goal.

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” – Gen. George S. Patton

I love this quote.  Most cross-functional groups do not clearly understand what they are trying to achieve.  This lack of clarity allows each individual participant to assume their best outcome is to focus on what benefits their particular group, and not the organization as a whole.  At the beginning, leaders should set a clear expectation for what is to be achieved.  That goal will be most effective if it is focused on something external, bigger than any individual participant or group.  “Our goal is improve how we deliver products to our customers.”  “We are going to design products that better meet the unspoken needs of our consumers, while improving our time to market.”  These are real world examples which have galvanized teams to work together.  Bigger than any one individual.  Focused and external.

Let the team solve the problem.

The second part of Patton’s wisdom is about letting the team dazzle you with their genius.  Far too often, we as leaders believe we have the answer.  Our participation in the cross-functional process becomes more and more directive.  It is our responsibility to encourage our content experts and organizational leaders to come up with their own solutions.  We must repeatedly encourage them to continue investigating, to find their own answers, to make the solution their own.  I have found it most effective to encourage small “offline” groups to develop their own recommendations and solutions, away from the prying eyes of senior managers, managers and other authority figures who are not the content experts.  At Benchmade, we had several groups ask the leaders to accelerate the pace of implementation for their solution.  They had identified their own best path forward, understood the benefits of a full implementation, and became impatient with our pace.  In allowing them to lead in the solution, they were able to launch a product with only a two week delay, when the original recommended path was a 6 month slip.  Their plan.  Outstanding result.

Establish a cadence of accountability.

The hardest part of building organizational trust and cross-functional partnership is keeping the group focused on the task at hand.  Everyday priorities get in the way making progress on the project, and allows the team to drift back into their bad “siloed” behaviors.  You have to force them back together.  At Blount, we described it as maintaining a “ruthless cadence of accountability”.  No matter what, we met.  Everyone had to participate.  Depending on the scope of the challenge, you can set an appropriate cadence – daily, weekly, monthly – whatever is necessary.  But you must force participation on a recurring cadence.

Group members make commitments to each other.

It is not enough to have people passively participating.  They must be engaged.  If I ask you to complete a task, your might do it.  But, you won’t feel ownership.  If a member of the group commits to deliver something, the likelihood of an emotional commitment to deliver is much higher.  I have used this method at 4 different organizations, and it’s never failed me.  (FYI – Stephen Covey first exposed me to this idea in his book “The Four Disciplines of Execution.”  Great read.)  Make part of your cross-functional project a report out with participants making commitments, and reporting their progress.

Once an organization gets used to partnering, to trusting each other, the synergistic effects multiply very quickly.  Distrust fades.  Proactive engagement replaces silos.  New capabilities are unleashed in individuals within the organization.  At Blount, I had a team member from another part of the organization chase me down in the hallway to talk about a solutions she’d developed.  At the beginning of the process, we had to physically go get her to attend meetings.  That team learned to cross-functionally identify and resolve problems so well, they began to outrun their oversight.  Not in a frightening way, but an amazing one.  The benefits to the organization, and our customers, were outstanding

The solution seems simple.  Gather the cross-functional experts; free them from the past to build their future; set a clear vision; empower the team to take action, ask for commitments; and develop a cadence.  And, it actually is.  As leaders, we have to have the courage to empower them, the willingness to create the necessary clarity, and the patience to allow the team to find their own way.

Mike Ulwelling



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