How Can I Help?

It’s important to remember that everyone needs help, but not every needs what you have to offer at that point in time. So take your hands off the wheel for a moment and ask the other person, “How can I help?”. You will be surprised at how it helps you to grow and build your relationships.

A decade ago when I was working in soccer coaching, we were holding a large training session for around a hundred kids, and there were several assistant coaches like myself arriving.  Our lead coach turned to us and said “Ask how you can help. Don’t wait to be told what to do.” Succinct.

Since then I have repeated the coaching and used the phrase almost every week of my life.  I walk into a situation whether at a client or at home and ask, “What can I do to help?”. I am often surprised, even with people that I’ve just met, I can be of service and make a difference immediately.  When I’ve tried to force fit items from my list of defined services, it never goes very well.

They key is not the phrasing but understanding the intent.

  • Not sure how to plug in?  Take personal responsibility and ask someone else.
  • Give the control to the other person and let them guide you to be of better service.
  • Don’t make an assumption that you know what they need. Ask!
  • Then do what they ask. That is sometimes the hardest part.  Maybe you did not want to clean up lunch boxes from the last meeting, take notes or chase the kids. You asked, so go with it.

“How can you help?”

Improve the Value of Your Attention

I recently wrote about attention as the currency of relationships.  What determines the perceived quality of our attention? How can we improve the value of our attention to family, friends, coworkers and clients? Make the most of the time we have together?

I think there are several dimensions to the quality of our attention.  The core of which came from some works by David Maister and company on defining trust from his book the Trusted Advisor.  I’ve modified and added to this equation.  The elements:

  • Credibility
  • Reliability
  • Character
  • Intimacy
  • Focus

In formula it would look like:

Quality of Attention = (Credibility + Reliability +Character + Intimacy)/Focus

Credibility is about whether or not we should even be in the conversation with someone.  I am rarely credible to strangers I meet through work, but if we are discussing something I am passionate about I quickly gain credibility.

Reliability is about doing what I said I would do and in deeper relationships I should anticipate and being to support people without being told.

Character is about proving your integrity over time, not about being interesting.

Intimacy is about being open like vulnerable trust.  In our personal lives this can be taken further than maybe in our business roles.

And Focus is about who you are focused on.  Are you focused on the other person?  That is positive.  Focus only on yourself and you undermine anything you do in the other categories.

Can you improve your relationships by paying a higher quality attention?

Attention is the Currency of Relationships

“Are you listening to me?” It’s a phrase I don’t like to hear because it means I am not paying attention.  What an interesting phrase paying attention.

We talk about how to get attention from customers and new mediums are creating new positions within companies like Chief Digital Officer. We think about monetizing our customers attention.  So many visits, viewers, uniques, and hours spent paying attention.

In relationship development from bonding with newborns to finding our special someone to rescuing a relationship it is about paying attention. We literally pay for attention in the business world.

But attention is really the currency of relationships.  We pay attention to people and it enriches our relationships.

The higher the perceived quality of attention the greater the value.   The more high quality (as perceived by the receiver) attention we give to someone the stronger our relationship becomes.

In fact we have always paid people for their attention.  I hire people to work with me because I want their attention to help me solve problems and to help my clients solve problems.  People buy art because of the attention the artist put into their product.  A high quality product is often because of the amount and “quality” of attention put into its development, construction, presentation and many other factors.  Our monetary currency is in many ways a to represent attention.

Think for a moment on how much of your attention you give to others?  Are some people willing to pay you for your attention at work?  Do people who really mean something to you get the attention from you they deserve?

When you look at your relationships are you paying enough attention to receive the attention you want in return?

Earn the Right to Answer

“Do you like my new suit?” and “What do you think of my business model?”

Have you earned the right to answer?

We get excited! We race ahead! We think we know! We want to share! We’ve been trained to be good puzzlers and so we want the attention, good feelings and share of the spotlight that comes from having the answer.

I sometimes forget we are all working on our own individual scripts, our unique view of the world. People we are interacting with may not want our answer or may have very different information and outlooks on the question than we do.  They may be working off of a different script and the answer we want to give will make no sense to them and might even annoy them. “Next! Please move along.  Don’t call us we’ll call you!”

So what to do?

First, find out about their script.  What is important to them?  What do they want to have happen next and in the future?  How are they looking for events to unfold?  What would be bad outcomes?

I ask these questions, that I learned form other experts so that we can adjust and tune into the people we want to help.  Then I can adjust our answers to the areas that they care about so that our contributions are additive and actually helpful.

For example imagine meeting a new network contact and they are running a sales organization.  They describe some of the difficulties they are having driving new sales.  What you should not do is tell them how to run the best sales organization in the world using your unique contacts and capabilities.  Even if it is the right answer.

Rather I believe you need to understand the issues faced, plumb the depths of the pressures facing them personally and try to find out what they want to have happen and why.  The why is important and it needs to be both for their company and for them.  So first you need to ask them if you can talk about it.  That’s the first step.

After that the conversation should be easy and focused on them.  You can work on having a trust based discussion and developing a real collaborative understanding.  Then maybe you can put some of your ideas on the table.

I know I struggle with this regularly.  I do it even now.  So I often have to apologize and then say that “I am sorry, I think I am racing ahead, maybe I need more information first” or even, “I don’t know I am right”.  While subtle this give back is important to recover.  But wouldn’t I be more helpful if I could have listened and developed an understanding thereby earning the right to answer first?

Are your team’s relationships holding you back?

Tammy, CIO for a popular software as a service company, was struggling to improve her relationships with her peers. Even though she acted with integrity and was an involved, reliable, and caring leader, she and her IT team struggled to build better relationships with their CFO and CMO.

During a long conversation with her CEO, Tammy was told that he needed more from her and her team. Her organization was simply not trusted to deliver on critical projects.   Projects were unpredictable. Success was inconsistent. The CEO’s parting words echoed loudly:   In a service company that values honesty, integrity and reliability, her team was perceived as falling short of expectations.


Looking for answers, Tammy asked her CMO peer, Neal Wallace, to lunch on Monday to discuss how she could make improvements.  The meeting created more questions than answers. Neal told her that he liked many of her people and really respected her.  The company achievement award she had earned a few years ago for exemplifying company core values was not diminished in his mind. However, he also said that his staff was constantly complaining that they could not get anything done with her team.  The IT team was a black box and treated his team with the same personal interaction they gave to their laptops.

His team made commitments and then felt held hostage because they could not get information on where the IT team was on any of their initiatives.  Now they felt it just wasn’t worth the effort.

Following the meeting with Neal, Tammy was confused.  The IT team had a clear process.  They spent months creating it and informing the other departments how it worked and why it would improve service.  The process had been championed by everyone, including Neal.  So why was it now so misunderstood?

She pulled up the website that showed ticket and project status for everything IT was working on.  The project management site was current.  Everything was there and even included the changes from this afternoon’s staff meeting.  It couldn’t be clearer: staff allocation, progress to baseline, Gantt charts and EVM calcs were all listed in detail down to the task level.  The system sent out notifications of all daily changes and even a status for requests that had not yet been reviewed.


Determined to crack this problem, Tammy scheduled another lunch – this time with her CFO, Cassandra Kelly.   Wednesday’s lunch came and went, leaving Tammy even more concerned and disappointed.  Maybe her team was falling apart?  She didn’t want to believe what she had heard.

Although Cassandra appreciated the reduced IT costs from using offshore and onshore resources, she told Tammy she could not afford to miss deadlines on upcoming integration efforts with the new customer engagement and ERP systems.  There had already been a series of missteps by IT in the early execution phase as they got up to speed, causing some early deadlines to be missed.  However, everyone on the executive team had agreed to stretch and take on the high probability of problems in order to complete the project in the current fiscal year.

Although the IT team was doing much better now and starting to develop velocity, Cassandra felt that they were still not getting the projected value from the IT investment.  She assured Tammy that while she respected her personally, she was now in a squeeze to honor her commitments.  Her reputation (and that of her team) was on the line and she needed more from IT right now. Cassandra had not understood that failure was a real possibility or she would not have agreed to the risky timeline.

Tammy had heard enough.  A clear message was emerging:  Tammy was widely respected for her personal integrity and trustworthiness. However, because her team was perceived as ineffective, Tammy was as well.  While she was focused on building her own credibility, she should have been spending just as much time building her team’s credibility.


Next, Tammy turned to her CIO networking group and shared the input from her C-level peers.  She left the meeting with specific insights to mull over:

  • Did her team spend enough time building relationships with other departments?  The basic concept was that a company was a collection of relationships.  Relationships need to be nurtured with time and quality attention.  Tammy would need to make sure processes weren’t preventing people from interacting and growing relationships.
  • Is improving the trustworthiness of individual team members part of the plan to improve overall department relationships? Tammy needed to work with individual team members to make sure they were fully present, focused on their customers, and authentic in their interactions and not overly reliant on processes.
  • Is there enough resiliency in her team’s relationships within the organization to absorb small setbacks? When enough time was invested in building quality relationships and supporting the needs of individuals in other departments, Tammy’s team would gain more ability to absorb small setbacks.  Additionally, their reputation as reliable and trustworthy would  improve their ability to execute quickly.   In hindsight, Tammy’s team should have made sure they could execute first and not overreach to accomplish Cassandra’s tasks. Even if it was more expensive at first to plan for more skilled resources, it would have ultimately been less expensive.
  • Is her team measured by value delivered or dollars spent?  Lastly, many efforts on the surface that look like smart fiscal maneuvers, actually weakened relationships by putting more emphasis on dollars spent than total value delivered. In situations like this, aspects like quality and internal customer satisfaction tend to be relegated to secondary importance when teams believe they are measured primarily on cost. While easier and less expensive for IT, was the data her team blasted to everyone about projects inadvertently undermining her team’s value perception?  This process-heavy approach eliminated opportunities to connect and communicate, leaving internal customers feeling abandoned and underserved.


The following week Tammy met with a group of her senior IT leaders to determine how to improve the perception of their team.  She laid out the challenge before them and explained the situation as an opportunity for them to address the concerns of their internal customers.  After several hours, the team emerged with a skeletal structure to address their issues and an agreement to discuss implementation in their next meeting:

IT Team Plan to Improve Organizational Trust With Our Internal Customers

  1. Be Credible: Provide realistic estimates (dollars, resources, time) for the technologies and activities we will perform by increasing the skills of our internal resources and/or leveraging outside resources where necessary.
  2. Improve Reliability: Understand the difference between commitment, best efforts and good intentions within our department.  Make sure we communicate to our customers in clear, consistent language so we can effectively manage their expectations.
  3. Be Transparent: Make sure we have agreement with our internal customers on what we will measure before we start working.  Tammy commits to regular quality reviews with top customers and teams to track progress.
  4. Reduce Team Self Focus: Collaborate with customers to develop new processes that will give them the useful information they need to be successful. Even if that means a slightly higher cost, it will prevent us from focusing only on what makes IT better rather than our internal customers and the overall business goal.
  5. Build Character: Create shared understanding on how to deliver our core values and provide the best possible service.  Even if that sometimes means saying no or delivering disappointing news to our clients, our goal is to always get to a yes we can all agree on. We also need to hone our communications skills and do a better job listening and understanding our customers.  Note: Not a quick fix.

After several months progress had been made the new behaviors were starting to taking hold.   The commitment from the group was solid and Tammy was cautiously optimistic.

Six months after their initial conversation, Tammy scheduled a follow-up meeting with the CEO.  Tammy was hopeful about the outcome, but still uncertain as to the input the CEO was  receiving about the performance of the IT team from the rest of the company.


The meeting with the CEO went better than Tammy expected.  Not only was there recognition that the team was making strides to improve, there was real gratitude that her team had invested itself in a recent opportunity with Marketing.  An initial proposal from Neal, the CMO, had been finalized collaboratively for a best outcome for the company.  Although it meant bringing in an outside group, everyone felt like the team was open, committed and on the right track to success.  The IT team’s flexibility, partnering and experience with outside vendors, allowed the company to make better decisions and an optimal implementation.

For Tammy, the best part was when the CEO asked her to lead an effort to share some of the changes she had made in her department with him and her peers.  The CEO was looking to build more trust to improve execution, partnering and resiliency before embarking on new programs for the fiscal year.  This was validation that — while not perfect-—her team was making a noticeable impact.

Tammy’s confidence was restored.  While she had always followed all the rules and done everything right, a shadow had been cast on her credibility as a leader.  Determined to turn things around, she successfully restored her reputation by helping her team to improve its own trustworthiness.

For more on this topic please check out our post on Organizational Trust.

It’s all about relationships

 “Very little that is positive is solitary.” -Martin Seligman, Flourish 2011

What we can often forget is the most obvious part of our existence.

How do we get anything done?  As leaders we are often charged with lighting a path providing opportunities for those around us.  This is true whether in software development like my background, or in any other leadership role, even within a family.

So how do we succeed in business and in life?  How do we establish the greatest number of options to help solve problems?  How do we really get things done?  It’s all about relationships. I want to talk about what this means for us in doing business and how to be a better leader as a result.

” Relationships are how energy and information is shared as we connect and communicate with one another. “- Dan Siegel, Mindsight 2010

We are social beings. Unless you have telepathy you are living in your own world in your head watching your own picture show of reality as you see it.  As social beings we are wired to communicate with others to relieve that isolation as part of creating well being for ourselves and others.  The currency of relationships is attention: the information, energy and focus we give to others and need from others. We use that currency to get things done in our social world each day and to define our reality.

 “Words and ideas are examples of units of information we use to communicate with one another.”  – Daniel Siegel, Mindsight 2010

We need to learn how to build a network that supports and sustains us. It is something that goes beyond the moment, beyond the job and beyond a given company.  Our network of relationships is part of who we are as human beings. It is up to each of us to learn this truth and to spend the time and attention to nourish those relationships.

We get things done through relationships.  I am cursed by a generational tendency to own a responsibility to work to solve things by myself. “I got it boss! You can count on me!”.  While I can do a lot of independent work, I never really do it myself. In fact, everything I ever get done is done because of my relationships. I may lead an initiative, but I am always marshaling resources available from my relationships to actually get work done. Yet we often lose sight of this simple fact because the bonds of our relationships are invisible and as such are often out of mind.

Look around where ever you are at the moment.  Everything you see within your view has been affected by relationships and in many cases exists only because of relationships between people.  Do you live in a community, a village, a city?  Do you belong to groups or affiliations?  Do you live in a house or an office building?   What about the medium that allows you to read what I have written? All of this has been built and created by relationships.  Some of those relationships might have been transactional and some likely deeply personal.

Positive relationships are something we need as people in order to create well being.  Cited in multiple publications and research studies positive relationships are a foundation for happiness and well being.  Our best moments are often those shared with others personally and professionally.  Deep fulfilling business relationships give us the ability to work through the best and worst of times as leaders.  They are better than the best strategy and tactics, better than the latest research paper and a more important resource for success than even an ever full bucket of gold. Strong positive business relationships fulfill us as social beings and enable us to truly get things done that make a difference.

Amazingly building strong relationships is not taught in our schools. Our most important survival mechanism and success mechanism is not part of a curriculum.  We assume that we will learn the skills necessary to build strong relationships, by living our lives with other people.  However, we all know that even with the best manners, schooling, social upbringing and advantages, some people still need help developing the skills to build strong relationships. How many people do you know look at networking as some sort of strange activity, rather than a chance to build strong relationships for mutual success?

I know I am still learning at age 44 how to be better at building strong positive relationships. I spent my early years passing the gauntlet of primary and secondary education, learning technical skills followed by establishing myself as an independent and capable person.  I had friends and still do, but I didn’t know what that meant to me in a business setting.  Could I have real friends at work?  I once thought business and personal life needed to be separate in some un-definable way. I always found this thinking conflicted with how I felt and acted. Well the way I would like to think I acted.

We abhor silos in organizations for the problems they create, no less the silos in our life.  We live one life.  Why not apply the things we learn to our whole selves?  I am not telling you to invite everyone from work over for every family member’s birthday party every year mind you. That’s over the top and likely won’t build relationships. Rather we need to understand that relationship development and nurturing are skills that are about who we are as people, not just as business people.

Look around you today and think about the amount of attention you give and you get.  Not to create a balance sheet, but to understand you receive back from what you give and to assess how much attention are you giving to nourish your relationships.  The more people you can serve well with your attention the more quality relationships you will build in your network.  If you are really vigilant and value the people in your relationship network, the returns will come by themselves.  We are wired to reciprocate with each other.  Done selflessly for the good of others, you will receive back more opportunities to assist you and those in your network than what you give out.  It compounds like interest over time.  When you experience this you will realize it is all about relationships.


  • Friends, colleagues and clients…
  • Siegle, D.J. – M.D. (2010) Mindsight:The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books
  • Seligman, M. (2011) Flourish New York, NY: Free Press
  • Rodriquez, Don Miguel (1997) The Four Agreements. San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen Publishing
  • Diener, E. and Biswas-Diener R.– (2008) Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Hoboken, NJ:Wiley-Blackwell
  • Ben Shahar, T. (2007) – Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment . New York, NY: McGraw-Hill