The Proactive Magic of Asking, ‘How Can I Help?’

by Doug Conant

On the Friday afternoon of 4th of July weekend, 2009, I was on the New Jersey Turnpike returning home from another bustling day of activities as CEO of Campbell Soup Company. My wife was away in Washington, D.C., helping our daughter move into her new apartment. In the backseat of the car, I was dozing off with my seatbelt on, at the end of a busy week. We were going fast, between 70 and 80 miles per hour, when my driver rammed into the back of a large truck that was stopped near an exit. Fortunately, the driver’s air bag deployed and he was unharmed. I was not so lucky; I narrowly escaped with my life.

When I awoke in the ICU many hours later, confused, groggy, and with pain throughout my chest and abdomen, the first thing I saw come into focus was the comforting sight of my wife, Leigh, by my side. She had rushed to the trauma center from D.C. in a panic at the thought of me waking up alone. Squeezing my hand, she said three words that I will never forget: “I’m right here.”

The nurses later told me that Leigh had refused to leave my side the entire time I was unconscious — not even to get a glass of water or use the restroom. She was afraid that if she left for even a second, that would be the moment I awoke. To this day, I’m grateful; when I woozily opened my eyes in that fluorescently lit hospital room, not sure where I was, I was so comforted by the familiar sight of her face. It grounded me. Seeing Leigh in that moment gave me the strength to cope with what had happened. All she did was show up. But the simple act of being present when I needed her most helped me immeasurably, and steeled me for the long road to recovery that lay ahead.

Leigh’s support for me that day reinforced a powerful observation I have had about leadership throughout my career. I didn’t have to tell her what I needed. She proacted to my need for her help, for her presence; it gave me strength and determination to stay the course. Similarly, in leadership, I have found that no matter how complicated the issue, or dire the situation, sometimes people simply need that same proactivity and support; they need to hear from their leaders, unsolicited, “I’m right here,” “I’m with you,” “We’re in this together.” Being present and available to others can energize them, renew their resolve, and give them the necessary encouragement to see things through. It’s a way of helping.

The Best Leaders Are the Most Helpful

As I was recovering from my accident in the hospital, there was an army of nurses, doctors, and support staff caring for me. Attentively, they would check up on me, asking about my pain, listening to my responses, tinkering and course-correcting my treatment along the way. But they weren’t all equally skilled; as in any organization, some professionals were more experienced than others.

I quickly learned that I could tell the most adept personnel apart by one important differentiator. Every time the most engaged caretakers would visit my room, they would approach me with a sleeves-rolled-up spirit of, “How can I help?” The best helpers were fully present in their interactions with me — not nervous, hesitant, or withholding. They were self-assured, compassionate, and generous with their time, attention, and knowledge. They weren’t only kind; they were confident.

I came to understand that the best professionals were the kindest professionals, the ones who knew how to put their knowledge to work in the nimblest way. Many people think that leadership presence is earned by being imposing or austere, or by seeming busy, unavailable, or unapproachable. Aspiring leaders often worry that the vulnerability that accompanies kindness, or offers of help, will make them seem “weak.” But I have observed the exact opposite. What I saw during my recovery was that I could easily gauge the expertise level of the staff by how confidently and generously they offered their help. That was a powerful lesson.

I found that whenever I was tended to by an “expert-level” helper, not only did I feel assured that I was in good hands and that everything was going to be okay, but I also felt motivated to keep going, to continue fighting. In a situation where despair and hopelessness could easily have set in, their eagerness to be helpful gave me faith in the process and inspired me to match their spirit of contribution by giving my recovery the maximum effort possible.

As I observed this in the hospital and reflected back on my leadership journey, a core tenet of my leadership philosophy was strengthened time and again: The more we approach our work from a place of “How can I help?” the more effective we become. Just as the best nurses were the best helpers, so too are the best leaders.

To achieve optimal leadership outcomes, people must see how devoted we are to their success, that we have their backs, that we are willing and able to pitch in to reach shared goals. More often than not, people are steeped in the same complex web of challenges that we are as leaders. They get just as many emails, texts, and phone calls. They have just as many kids, cousins, parents, spouses, religious groups, book clubs, to-do lists, vendors, colleagues, babysitters, and bank statements vying for their attention and depending on them not to drop the ball. Sometimes, all people need is for their leaders to simply show up at their side when the chips are down – letting them know that you are right there with them, and that you are willing to help them do whatever it takes to get the job done.

When we offer to help, we let people know that they’re in good hands, and we invigorate the overall effort by inspiring others to mirror our commitment with their own work and devotion. This approach may seem obvious but, again and again, it is the obvious stuff that gets overlooked, and that’s a shame because it is where the most powerful truths about leadership can often be found.

Start Small

To better anchor your leadership in a helping spirit, it is transformative to practice starting some of your interactions with the four little words, “how can I help?” — not just bringing the “feeling” of being a helper to your approach in a broad way — but literally saying those exact words. You’ll be surprised how it sets the tone for your conversations and helps you shape more productive relationships.

What I’m suggesting amounts to the least we can do; and yet, many people don’t even expect this bare minimum level of support. That’s why you may be shocked at how disarming it is to simply ask the next associate you speak to, “How can I help?” instead of the other pleasantries or openers you would normally use. Usually, employees are bracing to report what they’ve been doing to help you as the leader, not the other way around.

Just as Leigh proacted to my needs in the hospital, these four words proact to the needs of your associates, rather than passively waiting to react. The phrase immediately values people by offering them a chance to feel heard and respected; it’s also a concise way of showing that you are right there with them, that you’re in this together. Finally, it sends the message that this is an organization that cares about people, from top to bottom.

It’s amazing how something as small as four little words — “how can I help?” — can change the entire energy of your workplace. The more you do it, the more other people will do it. Slowly but surely, you’ll have created an army of helpers all uniting to collaborate and produce extraordinary results, taking your enterprise from a “me” culture to a “we” culture. Start to fold in the practice. Begin in your very next encounter, if possible. It will change you.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from The Blueprint by Douglas R. Conant. Copyright (c) 2020 by Douglas R. Conant. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.

Douglas Conant is the CEO and founder of ConantLeadership, a mission-driven community of leaders and learners who are championing leadership that works. He is the former CEO of Campbell Soup and former president of Nabisco, as well as author of the new book The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights.

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