Category Archives: Asking for help

The importance of being coachable for your career

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Over the years, I’ve noticed one trait that helps employees become successful within a company: being coachable. That is, having the desire to learn new things from other people.

This is especially true for employees who are coming right out of school or joining a new industry. They have a skills gaps between what they used to do and what they must do in their new jobs.

Why is being coachable important?

Your manager can teach you the hard skills you need to do your job: How to use Excel, how to write reports, how people communicate across the company’s departments, etc. But your manager cannot teach you anything if you aren’t willing to learn and be coached.

An employee who actively learns from those around her can always improve her skills and learn to add more value to the company. An employee who is set in her ways won’t improve at all and will stagnate quickly.

Which employee do you think will get more promotions and achieve more in her career?

How to advance your career at any age

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We previously discussed who the best resources are to help with your career development: Your boss, your boss’s boss, your company’s HR department, and mentors in your industry. Take a look at that article to learn why they are helpful for your career and how to form a mentorship with them: The best resources for developing your career. In this follow up article, we will talk about how to get their help in your career development.

Advancing your career at age 25 is very different than at age 45, but it’s possible to reach the next level of your career using advice from the same people. At every step in your career, you should get feedback from your boss, boss’s boss, and other mentors.

They will give you different advice at each step along the way, but if you use their advice you will get promoted faster.

Let’s break down how to advance your career by learning how to get good advice from them and how to use that advice to get the best results for your career goals.

Since part of the job for your boss and boss’s boss are to mentor you, you can meet with them every six months to get their advice. After all, the better job you do, the better they look for their bosses. And they can schedule time into their work day to mentor you.

These meetings will be more formal meeting than weekly one-on-ones but less formal than your annual review. They focus less on what you are working on at the moment and more on long term development.

One of the best ways to schedule this meeting is to send a short email requesting their advice.

To: [Your boss]

Subject: Can I get your advice about my career development?

Hi [boss],

As you know, I’m working on Project ABC for our Acme Corp client. That fits well within the analytics work I usually do. [Say something you are working on. Your boss already knows this, but it helps lead into your ask in the next paragraph.]

But I was hoping to talk to you about my long term career development, particularly around other skills I should develop. I have a good grasp of analytics, but I wonder if there are other skills I need to succeed in the company and industry throughout my career. [It can be scary for your boss to talk about your career development. She may wonder if you are gunning for her job or might leave the company. Take a little pressure off by being clear about what you specifically want to learn: In this case, more skills.]

I have a few ideas, but your ideas would be helpful too. I would love to know about what skills I should learn, and also what events I can attend to learn more about the industry. I’d also love to hear about your career path up to this point. [Tell your boss that you have ideas so your boss knows you are being proactive in your own career development. Also give your boss some direction about what you’d like to learn: skills, industry events, and lesson from your boss’s career path.]

Can we set aside some time next week so I can get your feedback? [End with a yes or no question so it’s easy for your boss to reply with a yes response. By asking for next week, you give your boss enough time to clear her schedule.]

Thanks,

[Your name]

You can send this email to your boss or your boss’s boss (CC your boss if she needs to be involved in the conversation two levels up). It’s a convenient way to setup a meeting about your long term goals.

You can also send this type of email to meet with your HR mentor or industry mentor.

Ideally, you’ll meet with an HR mentor or industry mentor about once a year early in your career. Ask about general career development resources. As you get more senior in the company, you may want to meet more often since you will need to deal with more complex issues (such hiring, firing, approving performance reviews, industry trends, and other not-fun-stuff). But still try to meet to talk about your career development from time to time.

When you actually meetup with your boss or mentors, you should try to get the most out of the meeting as you can. One great way to do this is with the ARMOUR technique to feedback.

ARMOUR technique to feedback:

  1. A – Ask for advice
  2. R – Receive the feedback
  3. M – Make a plan
  4. O – Operate on the advice
  5. U – Update your adviser
  6. R – Repeat

Asking for advice is pretty simple. Schedule a meeting with your boss or mentor (using the email above), meet with her, and then have a conversation about your goals. Just remember to have a focused question that you want answered. Otherwise, the conversation will go off topic and you’ll come out of the meeting with nothing relevant to you.

Receiving the feedback is also pretty simple. Genuinely listen to your mentor’s advice and note it down. In the moment of the meeting, don’t think that some of the advice doesn’t apply to your situation. Just write it down so you can reflect on it later.

This step is where most people stop with their career development: They ask for help and listen. But if you want to make faster progress in your career, there are more steps to developing your career.

You will also need to take action. The first step for that is to make a plan. Prepare for how you will use the feedback your mentor gave you. Perhaps, your boss told you about an industry conference that happens every April. You should make a plan to attend next year and do what you can to get prepared now, such as buying a ticket. Or maybe your HR mentor told you about a manager in a different department that could help you learn about a new skill: Put a note on your to do list to get an introduction to that person from your HR mentor.

Then you will need to operate on your plan. Go to the industry conference, meet with the people your mentor thinks can help you, read any books your mentor suggested, and take any classes you hear about. This takes a lot of work and most people give up, but persistence is one of the most important skills for getting promoted throughout your career.

Once you’ve followed through on your mentor’s advice, you should update your adviser on your progress. Tell your mentor that you followed through on her advice and what the results are. Think about how refreshing that is for your mentor. Most people will ask for advice and then never do anything with that advice. You won’t make that mistake. Not only will you taking your mentor’s advice, you will also let her know about the results you got with it. You can send a simple email like this:

To: [Your boss]

Subject: Re: Can I get your advice about my career development?

Hi [boss],

Last December, you gave me some career advice to go to XYZ Conference in our industry. [Remind her about the advice she gave.]

I wanted to let you know that I went to the conference two weeks ago and it was very helpful! I learned about ABC, DEF, and GHI topics which I’m now applying at work. I’m already seeing better results on the Acme project! [Let her know how you used her feedback and why it’s helpful.]

Thanks so much for your advice last December! No need to reply. [Let her know she doesn’t have to reply because you just want to thank her.]

Thanks,

[Your name]

Now that you’ve updating your adviser about how you used her feedback, she will be more inclined to help you again later. No one wants to help someone who asks for advice but doesn’t follow through.

But everyone wants to help people who use the feedback! So the next time you need help, you can repeat the process.

Getting feedback about improving your career once is great, but this technique becomes so much more powerful over time. The advice you receive from a mentor at age 25 will be very different from the advice you get at age 45, but you can talk to them at any age about how to reach the next level of your career.

As you gain mentors over time, you can keep going back to them for advice year after year, improving your skills, and reaching the next rung of the corporate ladder over time.

Getting the most out of emails at work

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Anyone with more than 30 years of work experience can tell you how email has changed business. Maybe your boss has told you how it’s changed work: You can get answers to questions much faster, reference old conversations with a quick search in your inbox, and even work remotely now because of it. But like all types of communication, you need to use it well to get the most out of it.

Use it well and your coworkers will know what a great job you do. Use it poorly and you risk everyone thinking you’re a fool. Sometimes it’s a fine line between the two and being on one side or the other can influence if you get the next promotion.

As email has taken over the world, some people have learned to use it well and others just get by. Unfortunately, the way people prefer to use email changes from company to company and office to office, but there are a few common principles for communicating well no matter where you work.

One of the keys to using email well is knowing when to use another form of communication. In today’s work environment, there is no shortage of ways to communicate: Email, instant messenger, phone calls, texts, and face to face communication. For sensitive topics, face to face (or video chat if you work remotely) is the best. Sometimes you need to see each other’s body language to get the full message across.

Phone calls are great for quick and urgent conversations. If you need a decision quickly from your boss, giving her a call is a great way to go. How many times have you had a meeting with someone in person, but when the phone rings the other person interrupts your conversation to answer it? It happens all the time. There’s something about a phone ringing that makes everyone think the call is urgent and important, and that’s why phone calls are great for quick questions.

Email is good for things that will need to be referenced later, aren’t time sensitive, and require some consideration by the recipient before replying.

When you’re on the receiving side of emails, use inbox rules effectively. Two of the more effective tips are highlighting your boss’s emails in a different color and your boss’s boss’s emails in another color. That will allow you to pay extra attention to them. Your boss likely sends you emails for things that you directly need to work on so you will have an easier time tracking your projects and deadlines.

Your boss’s boss will likely include you on emails that are more long term in nature, such as emails for your department’s strategic priorities, interdepartmental projects, or industry news. This will give you a better sense of your company’s goals. As I’ve written before, understanding these goals can give you an advantage for building job security and determining your company’s financial health: Two things that will help you get promoted.

Also use inbox rules to file emails on particular subjects to certain folders. If you have projects working with a particular client, you might want to have all emails to and from that client go to an “ABC Project” folder. That will help you reference to those emails faster in the future and give you a quick way to track the communication on the project. It will also keep you less distracted since you will only look into those folders when you want to work on that project, which can increase your productivity. Just make sure you go through all the folders once a day, likely first thing in the morning or before you leave at night, and read through the emails. You don’t want to miss an important email from HR just because you’re automatically sending their emails to a “Company Social Events” folder.

As another tip, keep a folder in your inbox named “Feedback” where you store a record of your accomplishments, praise from coworkers, completed assignments, and feedback from your boss. When the time for your annual review comes around, you can refer back to this folder as a list of what you worked on during the year and how it turned out. (And if you’re interested in negotiating your salary down the road, keeping this record of feedback and what you’ve accomplished can be useful for making your case for a raise.)

If you use Outlook, checkout this link to learn how to setup inbox rules: Manage email messages by using rules. If you use Gmail, checkout this link: Create rules to filter your emails. If you use Hotmail, just kidding, no one uses Hotmail.

Sending a clear and action-oriented email is more difficult than being on the receiving end of an email.

Step one of writing a clear email is to know what you want as a result of the email. Do you want advice from the recipient? Are you only telling the recipient some information and don’t need a response? Are you trying to schedule a meeting? It’s a good idea to only have one objective from the email and to plan around that.

Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes. What level of formality do you need when you talk to this person? Write your email in that level of formality. How will she feel about what you are writing? If it’s a sensitive subject, you might want to send an email to schedule a time to talk in person. If it’s not a sensitive subject then you can get straight to the point in the email. What follow up questions will the recipient have? Anticipate and answer as many of these questions as you can in the email.

Let’s go on to two example emails to demonstrate how to craft a great email. The first email is a weekly status check to a client on behalf of the entire team. It purely provides information to the client and does not need a reply.

To: [client] [The To line is for people who need to reply to the email or who the email is directly addressed to.]

CC: [team member 1], [team member 2], etc. [The CC line is for anyone who needs to know what’s going on but doesn’t need to take action on the email. In many business emails, that’s unfortunately too many people…]

Subject: Weekly status check-in [The client probably expects this email every week so keep the subject line short and consistent every week.]

Hi [client],

The weekly status report is below. [This is a regular, expected email so get straight to the point. The topic isn’t controversial or difficult to talk about so no need to gently ease into the subject.]

Thank you for your team’s help getting us the data this week. We have analyzed the dataset and started running regressions on it. There have been no issues running the regressions so far. [Talk about the first point, in this case what work was done this week and a thank you for the client’s assistance.]

Next week, we plan to have some of the analysis complete and can start making the final report for your team. We will let you know if we need assistance but we don’t plan on it at this time. [The previous paragraph talked about last week, whereas this paragraph talks about next week. Since it’s a separate train of thought, it goes in a different paragraph.]

No reply needed. [This takes the pressure off the client to think of a response. She can still reply with “Thanks for the update.” if she wants, but she doesn’t have to.]

Thanks,

[Your name]

Bear with me on the lack of specifics in the email. Each company sends status reports to their clients differently. But that email template should give you a guide for deciding who goes on the To line of an email, how to group your points into separate paragraphs, and how to let the reader know that you don’t need a reply.

The other email we will look at is for when you need advice on something from your boss.

To: [boss]

Subject: Question about forecasting inventory for the XYZ Project [Let your boss know that you have a question about a certain topic. This will let your boss know how important the email is based the XYZ Project’s priority. It also lets your boss know that she will need to spend a little more time on this email since you are asking a question instead of just providing information.]

Hi [boss],

As you know, I am working on the financial analysis for the XYZ Project. I completed the statements of cash flow projection for the next 12 months earlier this week. That went smoothly. [Give a little context and status report even though she probably knows this information. It helps her get into the mindset to remember your project since she has so many other projects to manage.]

I moved on to forecasting the income statement, but I’m having trouble with it and would like your input. In particular, what document should we use to forecast inventory for the next 12 months? [Be very clear about what question you are asking. Also, you’re more likely to get a quick reply if you ask “Yes/No” questions, but if you need a detailed answer with a “who/what/when/where/how” question, plan for a longer wait time before getting a reply.]

Here are some solutions that might work:

  1. Brian has some reports from our inventory management software with industry averages. The reports are attached to this email. They are reliable reports but they are not specific to our company.
  2. The warehouse has the numbers for the past 12 months. I could use that to estimate future inventory but we will have a lot of guessing in our numbers.
  3. I can use the projections from the sales department. My concern is that it is based on sales quotas rather than inventory numbers which might be too optimistic.

[If you present a problem, also provide possible solutions with some positives and negatives about each choice. Don’t make your boss too much or he might think he’s doing too much of your job. And give your boss as much information as you can which is why this person is attaching the inventory reports to the email. It will allow his boss to see if those reports will work.]

Can you let me know which option you think is best? [This is a good action oriented question to end the email. The boss can simply reply with: “Use option 2”. You are taking the work off your boss so you will get an answer faster and more accurately.]

Thanks,

[Your name]

In a previous article, I wrote a sample email for setting up an in person conversation about a sensitive subject. Take a look at it through this link How to ask your boss for help without looking stupid.

Using email can be tricky, but learning to make your coworkers’ lives easier by writing good emails is well worth the time investment. Staying on top of your emails and getting quick, helpful replies from your coworkers will make you more productive. It will also make working with you more enjoyable for those receiving your emails.

Give these principles a try to increase your productivity at work.

You just need to ask

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Employees often get frustrated with their lack of autonomy. We have a great idea to help make your department more efficient. We want to work from home occasionally to save time commuting. We want to take on a few tasks from another department so you can learn more about the company as a whole. But you feel frustrated that you aren’t allowed to do those things.

Sometimes, getting the autonomy to try to things is just as easy as asking your boss a yes or no question.

Honest conversations are pretty easy to have. And when two people have built a trusting relationship with each other over time, they want to say yes to each other.

If you’ve done good work and helped your company become better, your boss will be much more likely to let you try new ideas. Sometimes, it’s just as simple as asking “can I try this new idea” to your boss, explaining why everyone will benefit from it, and getting a “yes” response.

Nabill

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Welcome and thanks for listening to my interview with Nabill! As promised, get the guide for learning how to ask your boss for help by entering your email address below. Having these types of open conversations with your boss is the first step in getting a raise, promotion, and freedom in your career.

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How to Ask Your Boss for Help Without Looking Stupid

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Have you ever felt this way?

I feel like I don’t know how to do my job well but I don’t know how to ask for help.

Feeling like you are struggling at work is scary. You might not know how well you are doing. You might think that your manager doesn’t have much faith in you. You want to ask for help but you feel like you might look stupid.

I want feedback from my boss, but she is incredibly busy all the time and I’m not sure what asking ‘How am I doing?’ would accomplish, especially if she says I’m not doing well.

Fortunately, you can ask for help and your manager will thank you for the conversation. I’ll show you how below.

Top value creators ask for help

Asking for help is what sets apart top value creators from everyone else. That guy in your office with the extra computer monitor writing Excel macros got that way by learning slowly and getting feedback from other people, although it might not look that way to you now.

Being unsure about your job performance is hard so don’t make it harder by not asking for help. Asking your manager about where you stand and how to improve is part of feeling more confident at work. It’s also part of your manager’s job to coach you to be your best, but you have to be proactive in asking for help. You and your manager are working toward the same goal, and the better you do at your job, the better your boss’s performance review will be. It’s her job to help you!

It’s a good idea to setup a meeting with your boss when you think you aren’t performing up to standard.

Know what you want to ask your boss

Before setting up a meeting with your boss or manager, think what you specifically want to know from your boss. Think about these questions:

  1. What projects are you working on now?
  2. Why are those projects important to the company?
  3. What are you doing well on those projects?
  4. What fears do you have for those projects?
  5. What areas do you think you need improvement in at work?
  6. What questions do you have for your boss about your job performance?

Set up a meeting with your boss

Now that you know how you feel about the projects, let’s write an email to your boss asking for a casual meeting to discuss how you can improve. It’s important to ask for a meeting before hand so it gives you boss time to prepare. You don’t want to march into your boss’s office and surprise her with this conversation. She needs time to prepare for it just like you do. Modify the email template for your own situation:

Hi [boss],

As you know, I am working on the cost report for the Acme project and I feel like collecting the data is going well. But I could use more guidance on how to present the data within the report. [Say something you are doing well so your boss knows you are adding value to the company. Then say something where you need a little guidance from your boss to lead into the main ask for help.]

Do you have 15 minutes to talk about the best way to present the data next week? I’d love your opinion on how to make this project successful. [Ask a simple question for a short meeting in the future. This puts off the pressure of clearing time in your boss’s schedule now. Then ask for your boss’s opinion which will be flattering that you value his/her opinion.]

I have a few ideas, but your ideas would be helpful. I feel like I still need to ask others in the department for help too often and don’t fully understand the big picture for the project. As a result, I’m not sure how well this project is going. [Tell your boss that you have ideas so your boss knows you are being proactive in learning your job. Then, be more general about the help you need. This gives him/her an opportunity to give you more general feedback about your overall performance.]

Can we set aside some time next week so I can get your feedback? [End with a yes or no question so it’s easy for your boss to reply with a yes response.]

Thanks,

[Your name]

Practice, practice, practice

Practice beforehand by running through the scenarios in your head. Think about the ideal outcome at the end of the meeting. For example, your boss might say that you are doing great so far and that the doubts you have are normal for someone with your level of experience.

Also think about how you will react if your boss tells you that you are under performing. Visualize yourself staying calm and explaining that you want to be a top value-creator 6 months from now by using the feedback from this meeting. Your boss will then know that you want to improve and can help you reach your goal.

Most importantly, remember that it is your manager’s job to support you and make sure you know how to successfully complete your projects. Your boss is on your side even if they don’t communicate that with you often. His/her performance review is based on how well you do. You and your boss are on the same team and working toward the same goals.

Take action

Take action now. Leave a comment below with your answers to the six questions above, then go to your email and write the message to setup a meeting with your boss. Good luck!