In a freak accident eight weeks ago, I was hit by a truck and pinned against a highway guardrail. The impact broke my femur in half and fractured my knee. Wheel chair bound for four weeks, I’m now halfway through a 6-month recovery period. Needless to say, I’ve had to rely on others a lot. And, like many people, I’m really uncomfortable asking for and receiving help. Yet a recent coaching engagement has helped me understand how impactful this discomfort can be on an executive’s, and on my own, influence.
Becky, an executive at a Midwestern bank, greeted me politely for our first coaching session in her immaculate office. She offered a seat and waited for me to take the lead. When I asked what she hoped to gain from coaching, she looked puzzled. “My boss, Jeremy, thinks I need to be more influential throughout the bank. But I’m not exactly sure what that means.”
During the next hour Becky came across as professional, on top of her business and, in her mind, ready to be promoted to a more senior role. She responded to my questions carefully and with precision. I noticed that I was working harder than she to uncover something that might be undermining her influence. I couldn’t find anything. Then I realized we were both engaged in an intellectual conversation, neither of us being vulnerable or taking risks with the other.
I was colluding, not coaching
I said, “Becky, we’ve spent an hour talking about your leadership and your business but something’s missing.” She raised her eyebrows. I continued, “I have no real experience of who you are as an individual.” Becky looked at me as if I’d just grown a third eye. She softened her tone and asked tentatively, “So, what do we do now?”
I challenged her to use our last half hour to tell me more about herself…who she is as a person, what her passions are, how she really feels about her situation.
Becky rose to the occasion, though this was clearly ‘sacred ground.’ In our remaining half hour together, we both learned a lot. Most importantly, she made the connection between her professional style and the coping strategies she learned years ago as a child of an abusive alcoholic parent. Back then she learned to perform her tasks with perfection, never let her guard down, and never ask for anything. Her survival required incredible self-reliance. This discipline helped her grow into a successful, independent professional. On the other hand, Becky rarely asks for help or shares herself personally with her senior peers.
Executive influence is a result of many elements including competence, judgment, approachability, and trustworthiness. But one secret source of influence often goes unrecognized: To be influential, one must also be willing to be influenced. For Becky, as for many others, an untapped source of influence lies in a willingness to reach out and solicit support and advice from others.
My own big Aha
With my broken leg, I’ve had no choice but to ask for and receive support. Total reliance on others has forced me to confront something I’ve long avoided. As an enthusiastic helper of others, I feel best about myself when I’m able to help others achieve their goals. But when it comes to receiving in the same way, I grow embarrassed, and think that familiar thought: “I’m not worthy.”
A few weeks ago, I had a breakthrough on a NYC subway. As I hobbled aboard on crutches, a young man stood up and offered me his seat. Instinctively, I declined his offer, and thanked him profusely. But he couldn’t sit back down and save face with the other commuters while I kept leaning on my crutch, so he continued to stand.
In that moment I realized the selfishness of my discomfort. When I give to others, I experience myself as helpful, competent and powerful. But when I decline others’ help, I actually deprive them of the very satisfaction that I grant myself.
With time to reflect lately, I’ve realized how my resistance to ask for help has limited me. I’ve avoided getting support to perform time-consuming tasks I’m not masterful at. I’ve missed deadlines because I wasted time trying to figure things out myself when I could have just made a phone call.
Becky and I share an opportunity to develop as professionals, and as people. We’re already successful, and are skilled at influencing others based on our expertise and readiness to help. But our reluctance to ask for support limits our effectiveness.
As we embrace our discomfort by asking for support, others gain the satisfaction of contributing to us. In so doing, we stretch our capacity to use vulnerability as a tool, and transcend the skill of “influence” to becoming truly influential leaders.