Help Wanted


People say everything comes in threes – accidents, coincidences, London buses, and all the rest. Yesterday the theme for me, expressed in different ways, was help wanted.

Example One: It’s mid-October and I thought we still had time to bag a few Munros*. The weather forecasts for Ben Lawers (1214 metres) said ‘a light sprinkling of snow on the ground, cloud cover soon clearing up’. Nothing too extreme, we thought. Well, guess what, the snow fell constantly once we rose above the treeline and most of the time we couldn’t see beyond the ends of our very cold noses. It was a disaster waiting to happen as we had forgotten our sticks and didn’t have crampons. But we persisted and persisted up a rapidly disappearing path until finally my wife, far more sensible than I am, said that’s it, she felt too far outside her comfort zone, and wanted to head back. In short, she needed help from now on, and she wasn’t afraid to say so. Unlike someone else…

Example Two: We made it down (mostly sledging on our backsides) and returned home to find an email from an old friend to say she had made the decision to try counselling for the first time. An outwardly successful and confident HR manager, she felt she was overwhelmed and starting to see patterns of behaviour which had led to breakdowns previously.

Example Three: A recent acquaintance called wanting advice on how she should go about restarting her business after a break. A high-profile coach with decades of experience, I was touched that she should approach me on this. Rather hesitantly, I asked if she had vocalised her need for work to her clients and to her contacts. Had she directly asked, “Could you help me, please. I need some work”?

Regular readers will know that every now and then I like to underline the blatantly obvious and so here we go again…Yesterday’s three instances of requests for help reminded me conversely how all too often, for whatever reason, we don’t ask for help when we really do need it. Brought up to rely on our own resources in achievement cultures – or to fixed concepts of roles and status in ascription cultures – we don’t want others to perceive us as weak or incapable or out of our depth or any of the other myriad excuses we invent.

And so we leave that simple request for help till it’s too late. Anyone who has learnt to dive will know about the ‘incident pit’ and the rapid snowballing of events that lead to disaster when you realise too late that you are not in control. Working in people development, I’m a strong believer in pushing your limits and getting out of your comfort zone. But, to take an extreme example, Felix Baumgartner knew when it was time to say enough is enough and pull the cord in his awesome jump the other day.

Lacking self-awareness or concealing our need for help, we overcompensate with extremes of behaviour – bravado or withdrawal, recklessness or silence. Our natural acting talents can be surprisingly good in our outward demonstrations of strength and self-efficacy. And appearances can lie. A coach of an impressive A-list of ‘successful’ leaders once told me that every single one of them has burst into tears within minutes of walking into her practice at one time or another.

In the workplace, not simply as coaches or counsellors or mentors, but as organisation leaders, line managers, colleagues and even reports, we need to be alert to those signs of issues, those moments when others need help – and offer this support or get someone who can. Pay it forward, like the Hollywood film put it. And for those of us who need help – and we all do at some stage – we need to be strong enough in ourselves to ask for that help. The bedrock of all organisations is communication. If you need help and are not telling anyone, you are not communicating. And organisations which do not communicate do not succeed.

I come from a coaching culture which believes we all have our own resources within us – it’s just that sometimes we need someone else to help us unlock that potential…

*Mountains over 914 metres in Scotland. There’s 283 of them and they inspire quite a few to some serious list-ticking…as well as being on the whole mind-blowingly beautiful.

About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.