You Get One Chance

Years ago, I had lunch with someone who used to work with me. We ran into each other at a conference, so I took him to lunch to talk about old times and share sea stories, because that’s what Sailors do. At one point, he said, “You know, I didn’t really like you until one day when you helped me with…”

I could barely remember that moment when I went down as a senior guy to enforce some standard a junior guy was responsible for. In the grand scheme of what I did there, it wasn’t even a blip on the radar of what I would call an accomplishment. A junior person asked for help, which involved looking stern and making people uncomfortable for not following rules, so I did it. I wasn’t trying to win his favor, and I wasn’t trying to prove myself to anyone. I just did what I could for someone who asked. It took him reminding me to even recall the situation, but to him it was the defining moment of me being there when he needed help. Years later, he still remembers it as the day I gained his respect.

Sooner or later, everyone needs a little help, a little direction, and maybe a push towards some goal. Even in my profession, where people are terrible at asking for help, sooner or later, it’s going to happen. Someone’s going to come to you with a request. Maybe it’s for you to make a phone call, or give some forceful back up to some standard, or maybe just some guidance on a life event that’s affecting the day job. From where you’re sitting, the request might seem so small that you don’t even consider it a task worth doing or an email worth typing. What that person is asking for, from your level, is simple– so do it.

You only get one chance to be there for your junior people when they need it and earn more than the respect required by your position. And here’s the tricky part: You don’t get to pick and choose when that defining moment is for each person. What you get to choose is how you’ll respond when people ask for help. And no, I don’t mean that you should stop everything for each and every request for your time. Some will ask for everything you have and every minute of your day. Those people are fairly easy to spot once you learn how.

All I’m saying is that we often think of the request on our terms and at our level instead of putting ourselves in the shoes of the person asking for help. More often than not, there’s no harm in sending that email, calling in that favor, or maybe providing some top cover for someone learning the ropes in a new position. These are those once-in-a-lifetime chances to earn the trust of your subordinates, which is the real foundation for just about everything else.

If you have a position of authority in your organization or are just a little higher up on the organizational chart, that only matters to the people under you if you can use the position to benefit them, share opportunities, and help out when they really need you. If you can, if it’s legal and ethical and possible, say yes when someone comes asking for help. You’ll be amazed, like I was, how one simple event can have long-lasting effects.

Sometimes, when someone comes asking for help, you know this is the moment. You see it in his or her eyes and understand how valuable you can be to a situation… but the answer is still no. You can’t write that letter of recommendation because it would be false, or you understand the rules better and can’t say yes, or the risk is too great. These are still chances to earn respect, not by giving what you can’t, but by not making excuses. Having difficult conversations and being honest, when there’s bad news instead of the help that person wanted, is always the best course. I find that people would rather hear the truth instead of some watered down avoidance. You only get one chance for that, too.

– Have you had the chance to be there for someone when really needed? What was the request?

– Have you had to have those uncomfortable conversations and be painfully honest when the request was impossible?

Have a great week out there.

– JT

James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as a Command Master Chief, the highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.