No Manager Is an Island

Asking for help, admitting ‘I don’t know’ and showing vulnerability are signs of good leaders

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie May 4, 2021
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No Manager Is an Island

​New managers may be reluctant to ask for help or guidance. It could be because they don't want to appear inept. It might be because they're used to being successful without leaning on others.

Whatever the reason, managers who refuse to seek support from others—whether a boss, a mentor, a coach or a peer—do so to their detriment.

"This is very dangerous," said John Crossman, CEO of Crossman Career Builders, a corporate coaching and advising company in Winter Park, Fla. "It can lead to catastrophic decisions. One area I've seen this happen is in hiring. I've seen managers make a poor hiring decision instead of seeking input from others, which would have prevented the bad hire."

What Happens When 'Kevin' Won't Seek Guidance

The Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) People Manager Qualification, or PMQ, explores this and many other managerial challenges. The PMQ is a new virtual learning program designed to help managers build their leadership skills.

In one PMQ episode, a young manager named Kevin struggles with completing an assignment because he is reluctant to go to his boss or mentors with questions. The longer he refuses to admit to someone that he isn't entirely sure of what he's doing, the farther he and his team fall behind and the more frustrated his direct reports become. One even quits his team.

"If you're ever wondering whether you should ask for help, then you already have your answer," notes one character in this PMQ episode. "You should definitely ask for help."

Guidance can come from four places: a boss, mentors, coaches and peers.

Each serves a different role and will be helpful at different points in a manager's career or situation, said Jeaneen Andrews-Feldman, chief marketing and experience officer at SHRM. If she had to rank them by importance, she said, a boss may be the best place to start.

"The reason that I put boss first is that they hold you accountable to create positive business impacts based on your role, and they are also working to develop you in a way that ensures your personal and professional growth," she said. "Typically, they are closest to the situation, and if they are a good people manager, they are providing honest and timely feedback."

Earlier in her own career, Andrews-Feldman said it made her uncomfortable giving tough feedback to employees during performance reviews. Her boss helped Andrews-Feldman find a way to articulate how the worker needed to improve without sounding critical, but instead "to help them get to where they wanted to be in their professional journey."

"That [performance] conversation was then seen as a 'gift' " to the employee, she said. "At first, it may have been difficult for the person to hear, but they knew that this was in the spirit of helping them improve, and if not taken seriously, would be an impediment to them achieving their professional goals."

However, some managers may not want to approach a boss "without first analyzing possible solutions," said Charles Ellis Bush II, an attorney in Ice Miller's labor and employment group in Indianapolis.

"I would encourage a manager to analyze and research the issue prior to asking questions, develop a possible solution to the problem, and approach the supervisor with the question and the possible solution," Bush said. "This will show that the manager is trying to be a problem-solver." 

Coaches and Mentors

The next step might be consulting a coach or mentor. The PMQ defines a coach or mentor as someone who "asks powerful questions to help you move forward with your agenda and identify and put into practice specific behaviors to achieve the change you want."

"The role of the coach or mentor is one that provides an outside-in perspective and can be very helpful in pushing you to see other perspectives on a given situation," Andrews-Feldman said. "I also like to think that the professional coach/mentor has years of experience helping professionals in similar situations and is therefore in a unique position to leverage other best practices they've seen work."

In addition to a business coach, Crossman consults with a personal counselor who "helps me tremendously in business" matters.

The Importance of Peers

SHRM Chief Knowledge Officer Alex Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, learned early in his managerial career that peers could be helpful sounding boards.

"I relied on a peer to help me manage a tricky situation regarding professional development for a junior staffer," Alonso said. "The junior staffer did not rate as highly on our potential assessments and needed remediation for professionalism skills. I struggled to convey this information and asked a peer to help me convert the message into something digestible for the staffer. My peer helped me put it into terms relevant to the staffer's prior work experiences, and I was ever thankful. To this day, I remember to communicate on a level that allows me to connect with my audiences. I could not have done this without my peer's contributions." 

If a business wants new managers to feel comfortable with failure or appearing vulnerable in front of others, then company leaders should ensure that the work environment feels safe and welcoming, said Jim Christy, CEO of Columbus, Ohio-based Postali, a marketing agency for attorneys. 

"Setting up recurring meetings for a new manager and their boss, mentor or coach is really important, especially during the first few months in the new role," Christy said. "If this is baked into the process, then the manager doesn't need to feel nervous about reaching out. It seems simple, but just eliminating the need for the new manager to say, 'Hey, can we meet?' can make a big difference."

While it may be tough for a manager to admit he doesn't know something or to confess she made a mistake, Crossman suggests when managers ask questions, "you are giving respect to others."

"It doesn't decrease your power; it increases it," he said. "Lead by example. Share stories about your mistakes and growth. Let your team know that you get coaching."

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