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Help!

Several years ago, I had a burning desire to write a book about the experience of women in business. I had a sneaking suspicion that no one was really telling the truth about what this was really like and I wanted to blow the cover on the smug assumption that everything in the garden was rosy. But no one was interested. Publishers said I wasn’t famous enough — I wasn’t Jack Welch, so who would be interested?

Several years ago, I had a burning desire to write a book about the experience of women in business. I had a sneaking suspicion that no one was really telling the truth about what this was really like and I wanted to blow the cover on the smug assumption that everything in the garden was rosy. But no one was interested. Publishers said I wasn’t famous enough — I wasn’t Jack Welch, so who would be interested?

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Venting my frustration to a friend, she did what all good friends do: Instead of offering advice, she asked questions. Did people know this was what I wanted to do? Who in my network could help? Had I asked them?

That really got me thinking. I had an agent, the agent knew publishers — that was the official route and it wasn’t working. I had to dig deeper and think harder. I needed to do the thing that we all dread: I had to ask for help.

Women hate asking — for almost anything. We don’t ask for raises, we don’t ask for promotions. This costs us a lot: up to 1 million dollars over our whole careers. And even though men are better at negotiating salaries, they don’t like asking for other things they need: directions, information, or support.

Stanley Milgram, the psychologist famous for his experiments exploring the psychology of obedience, did some less well-known work on the phenomenon of asking. He instructed students to ride the New York City subway and ask fellow passengers to give up their seats. Many of the students expected to be attacked; others were too sick with anxiety to do the experiment. But what they found was that 68% of riders gave up their seats. When researchers repeated the experiment recently, they found that 86% of New Yorkers gave their seats up without question. Milgram had discovered something immensely important that we underestimate at our peril: Most people want to help.

Robyn Benincasa, an Iron Man triathlete understood this phenomenon when she was struggling through an adventure race and had to ask her team member for help. Far from belittling her, she discovered that her request empowered and delighted her team mate. “Asking for help,” says Benincasa, “is a gift to the helper.”

It’s a radical and important insight: Asking for help is a gift to the helper. Just as Milgram knew, people want to help. Asking them gives them the opportunity. And, in today’s work environment, no one gets anywhere without help.

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What does that mean when it comes to careers? In planning your career, I think that knowing what you want is the hardest part. But once you know what you want — you just have to figure out how to get it. That’s much easier. And it’s easier still when you are prepared to reach out to those who will help you achieve your goal.

Getting that help is a matter of asking the people for something meaningful from the right people who are in a position to deliver. Asking everyone indiscriminately is like speed networking; it looks like you’re active, but actually you’re just frenetic. Think hard about who can really help. Who do they know that can help? What is it you really need from them? I take the approach that I will help anyone I can — but my ability to do so depends entirely on how well I know the person, how credible I think they are, and how well I understand their needs.

The most successful people I know got over any hesitancy in asking for help years ago. They understand that their careers and their businesses operate as an exchange of favors, information, advice, and insight. Leadership is no longer a matter of commanding the troops but of orchestrating the helpers.

After my friend asked her great questions, I went away and thought for a long time. I asked lots of people for help, some of whom could contribute and many of whom did not. Eventually, I asked my friend Alan Webber (the founder of Fast Company) if he could help — and he did. Not in any way that I expected or could have foreseen — but in a way that made all the difference. Thanks to him, my book came out. And I’ve learned, as the Europeans say, not to be backward about coming forward.

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