Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Career Advice Part 4: You Have to Ask For it

There are very talented people in the world of work that always get recruited, get promotion offers, are wooed by recruiters, get picked for all of the sexy assignments, and never, ever even have to ask. They are constantly being offered opportunities because they are remarkable. Their biggest challenge is sorting through all the offers and being in such high demand.

These are the true superstars, the “A” players, the prodigies.

I was never one of those people.

And I’ll bet you’re not either. The reality is, very few people are. They are the top 1% in any given profession – the rest of us make up the other 99%.

If you’re one of those top 1%, superstar A players, then this post is not for you. Just keep doing what you’re doing, and good things will continue to fall into your lap. Heck, I’m not even jealous. Being in the talent management profession, I work with rising stars all the time. They’re a pleasure to work with, and it’s rewarding to help accelerate their development.

However – for the rest of us – here’s my advice: if you want it, chances are, you’re going to have to ask for it.

I learned this at an early age. I was never the best at sports or school – but I did tend to fall into the next quartile, somewhere in the top 25%. It was usually enough to get my foot in the door and compete.

When I first started working, I had heard that if you work hard, do a good job, and have a good attitude, then good things will happen. I soon discovered that while those qualities were indeed important, good things usually came to those who also asked.

Looking back over my own career, every significant milestone was a result of asking for it. I wrote a business case than landed me my first promotion to manager. I contacted a recruiter and talked my way into an interview at my next company. I asked for my next promotion. I nominated myself for a prestigious executive development program. If I’m left off an important list, I’ll work harder and ask to be included next time.

I’ve tried to explain this to my kids as they’re learning their early workplace lessons. If you want a better shift – different days off – less hours – more hours – more money – more vacation – more responsibility – less responsibility – whatever… you’re got to ask for it. I can guarantee you that most managers – even the good ones – aren’t sitting around trying to read your mind and come up with ways to make you happy.

Perhaps to the readers of this blog – who tend to be a little more motivated than the average bear – this is too obvious. I have to tell you though; I’ve run into people from all walks of life that think it’s impolite, beneath them, inappropriate, selfish, or unnecessary to have to ask for anything at work. I think some of them would rather stew about it and be a victim – maybe it’s easier.

Here’s a classic example: Most companies have some kind of job posting system in order to make sure everybody has a shot at open positions. I’ve known a lot of people that refuse to post for a job – even through they really want it. They feel that it’s the hiring manager’s, or their own manager’s responsibility to seek them out and encourage them to post. Then, after the position is filled, they’ll carry a chip on their shoulder for years to come.

The concept of workplace “asking” doesn’t just apply to job opportunities, promotions, and raises.

When was the last time you felt you should have been invited to an important meeting but weren’t? Did you do anything about it? The next time it happens, and you really think there’s a compelling reason for you to be there, then contact the meeting leader and state your case. You may find it was just an oversight. Or, perhaps no one knew about your expertise or the role you could play. Worst case, you’re told no. At least you’ll know why and it shows you care about your job.

How about training and travel? Again, I’ve seen available budget go unused because of a lack of requests. Then, these same people will turn around and complain about a lack of development opportunities.

Tired of that old computer always crashing? How about asking for a new one? Again, I've seen employees just suffer in silence and never even tell their manager, let alone ask for a repalcement.

When it comes to leadership, some leaders get more support, resources, and opportunites simply because they have the courage to ask. In fact, they are often relentless - it's hard to say no to them. The rest will sit back and cry foul or favortism,  get frustrated, yet not do anything about it.

In most cases, you’ll have nothing to lose by asking. However, in order for the “ask for it” advice to work, you still have to meet the pre-requisite criteria: you have to work hard, be good at what you do, and have a good attitude. If you’re not, then asking will come across as clueless and/or obnoxious. Being a good employee earns you the right to ask away and increases your odds of getting a "yes".

Give it a try. Start with something small. Go on, just ask for it.


Mary Jo Asmus said...

Dan, this is great advice. I find that many are lacking the self confidence to "just ask". In retrospect, there were many times during my corporate career that I wanted to ask but was afraid of the answer; fear of rejection can be a very powerful demotivator.

It only took a few decades to heed Mom's advice, "How will you know if you don't ask?" and "The most they can say is 'no'!". I'm now more tempted to heed the advice of Peter Block who states, "'No' is the beginning of conversation".

CindyB said...

Hi Dan - I'm really enjoying your Career Advice series, especially hearing the 'inside skinny' from a decision maker's perspective.

Many years ago I was a Personal Assistant. The company advertised a role in the sales team - more money, company car and working in an exciting team. I spoke to several people in the sales team to learn more about what they did and asked for their suggestions on how I could differentiate myself from other candidates. Using that advice, I invited the sales manager and two other decision makers to a presentation. I shared what I'd learned about the service the role would be responsible for, along with market challenges and how I'd approach them. I finished with a slide that displayed a mocked up business card with my name and sales title on it.

I got the role.

After the internal announcement, another colleague expressed surprise and said to me, "If only I'd known you didn't need sales experience, I would have applied."

Wigarse said...

I suspect it isn't a co-incidence that the first 3 commenters here are all women (I'm one too).

I also suspect that this is the number 1 reason for much of the disparity between the genders in the work place. Woman find it an awful lot harder to ask for things than men do. We tend to find it a lot harder to believe we are good enough to make it worth asking and, if we get knocked back, we find it a lot harder to recover.

While I have no doubt that there is some active discrimination going on in some places, I believe much more of the problem is caused by a lack of understanding of the differences between the two genders' approach to raising through the ranks. Woman need to understand this difference, grab their courage in both hands and step up. However, managers also need to be aware that many women need to be coaxed and encouraged to apply for jobs higher up the career ladder. It is not true that, if you don't want it enough to ask, you won't be any good at it and the failure to understand this important difference is certainly causing many businesses to miss out on talented staff.

Dan McCarthy said...

Wigarse -
Thanks, I wasn't aware of the gender differene on this. That's very interesting.

Unknown said...

Hello Dan,
I don’t quite agree that “you’ll have nothing to lose by asking”. In fact I think that after asking, no matter what the answer is, your relations with people you asked won’t be the same as before. What if they have to say “no”? No-one likes to say or receive “no”. From that moment on the issue will hang between you forever souring your relations even if neither of you admits it. What if the answer is “yes”? The person who said “yes” is going to feel that you pressured him/her into this “yes”. No-one likes to be pressured.I think that “asking for it” will really change a lot of things, no matter what’s the answer, and the one who is going to ask should be aware of this.
I really enjoy your series - gives a lot of food for contemplation.

Dan McCarthy said...

Peter -
Well, that' the problem with advice - it's only based on what's worked for me and what I've seen work for others. I'm sure it won't work in all cases for all people.
Thanks for reading and being willing to consider it.

Unknown said...


I completely agree with this article and have had the same experience in regards to my career. Time and time again I've had to ask for a promotion, an opportunity to try a new project, or request new equipment to do my work better.

The person making the decisions may overlook your needs in many instances, but if you ask for it, they will be made aware of what your aspirations are. As long as you continue to work hard and show that you care about your work, it will make it really hard for the individual deciding on your request to say "no".

Dan McCarthy said...

Yung -
You're right, as a manager, it's hard to say no when someone really deserves it.