Tell People What You Want
A guide to making the important asks
Recently, I was reminiscing with Sheryl Sandberg about how she helped open the door for me to join Intuit board. Years, before there was an opening or I, was even qualified, Sheryl introduced me to Brad Smith, Intuit’s then-CEO. She told me before I went into the meeting that Brad might have a board seat open someday. I laughed because I was a rather junior employee at Facebook at the time. Years later, when I was much more senior, Sheryl told me that, lo and behold, Brad had a board seat open, and that I should interview for it.
Fast forward to when my book came out this past year. In one of the chapters, I reference the story of how Sheryl connected me with Brad, eventually helping me land on their board. When I was doing an interview with her at the launch of the book, Sheryl remarked, "You must have told me at some point that you aspired to be on a board. Why else would I keep an eye out for a board seat for you?"
I was a bit taken aback. For years, I had assumed that Sheryl had just wanted to get me onto a board and that introducing me to Brad had been all her idea. Her connecting me with him was what stuck in my memory—not what led up to it. As it turned out, though, she was likely right; I had previously asked her about joining a board, which was why she was looking out for me, even though it would be years before I was ready.
This exchange reminded me of a really important lesson: tell people what you want so they can help you achieve it.
Seems simple, right? But how often do we actually do this?
Open doors by being open to possibilities
We signal what we want in many different ways, and this can have an immense impact on the help we receive. If we seem open to opportunities, others will make us aware of them. If we solicit people’s opinions on how to grow, we are showing that we are willing to take feedback, and will continue to get advice. On the other hand, if we seem reluctant, people may consider someone else for the stretch opportunity, the mentorship, or the recommendation.
At the start of a new year during performance review season, I gave a member of my team a review. She had been doing the same job for quite a while, and she was excellent at it, so I asked her if she wanted to take on more. She didn't have a clear answer, so I nudged her to see if she showed any interest. She was somewhat non-committal, so I left the conversation wondering if she was truly open to the possibility.
Several months later, we were facing a reorganization that left a team orphaned. I had to make a quick decision about what to do. I thought back to the conversation I had with that report, and I wondered whether she would be interested in the opportunity. We were under a tight timeline, so I penciled her into the org chart and gave her a call. She seemed open but hesitant. I agonized over whether I was imposing something on her that I wanted for her more than she wanted for herself. In the end, though, she took the role and really thrived. It was such a thrill to see her grow. Still, part of me always wondered if I had pushed her into it. We never talked about it that way, and in the end, I think she appreciated the opportunity to stretch her skill set and scope. But I almost passed her over because she didn't lean in when I gave her the chance.
I contrast that story with the story of somebody on my team who told me he really wanted to learn strategy. He came from a different function, where they were more contributors than leaders in strategy. I was happy to see him put himself out there, and so I gave him an opportunity to work on the strategy with me side-by-side. He grew so much in the process. This was something I never would have done unless he had asked—and because he did, we were both able to learn and evolve because of it.
Opportunity doesn’t usually fall into your lap. It’s there, but sometimes you have to shake a few trees in order to get access. By making your goals known, you are giving others the chance to help you achieve them.
Learn to ask
No one can read your mind. I often tell the people I coach, "If you don't ask for what you want, don't be surprised if you don't get it." The issue is that if you're not clear about what your aspirations are, how can anyone possibly help you?
Recently, someone who I was colleagues with years ago reached out to me seeking advice on joining a board and asking whether I could open any doors for her. I had no idea this was something she wanted to do. We had never even discussed it. Though I was surprised, I gave her my guide to board service, helped her with her board bio, and then introduced her to several board recruiters. I'm not sure where it will go, but I’m happy that she reached out. If she hadn’t, it never would have occurred to me to advise her. By putting herself out there, she enabled me to help her get one small step closer to what she wants.
Your mentors and sponsors don't always have you at the top of their minds. Even when something seems important or obvious to you, it may not be to them; in fact, they may not even know you want it! That’s why it’s so important to reach out and ask. The worst thing that can happen is they say no. When people approach me like this, the answer I have to give them sometimes is "not now," but that answer may change when the right opportunity comes along.
You’ll never know if you don’t ask. Putting yourself out there like this can be difficult, but the potential reward is worth the risk of getting an answer you don’t want.
Give people permission to help you
What signals are you sending out? There may be times when you’re asking for what you want, but you’re confusing the people whose help you’re seeking—or worse, putting them off helping you altogether. This can be frustrating, for you and for them, so it’s important to be strategic about how you make the ask.
I’m a prime example of this: I always had a style where I would put the ball in the field and then look around to see who wanted to pick it up and run with it. For those who are proactive about it, this is a great strategy, because they’re willing to see it through. But for others (like myself), this strategy completely backfires. When I did this, I was sending mixed signals—and as a result, so were they.
One thing I found was that my mentors and managers wanted to help me succeed. But they also wanted me to show that I was open to their help. What’s more, a lot of times they weren't sure exactly what I wanted, because although they knew I was looking for opportunities, I wasn’t clear about what kind. That was when I realized I needed to be specific. By inviting help, and clearly defining how others can provide it, you are making it easier for them to give it to you.
Making the ask
Asking for what you want can feel fraught and leave you paralyzed. If you’re someone who struggles to speak up, advocating for yourself may seem downright impossible. In those moments, it can help to go in prepared, so here is a short template for making the ask that will put you on the right path.
Asks need to have four main qualities:
The desire: What is it that you want?
The why: Why do you want this?
The timing: Why is now the right time for this?
The invitation: What can the person you’re asking do to help you get there?
Before you approach someone looking for an opportunity, make sure you’ve identified each of these four elements. Next, you need to find a way to frame them clearly and constructively. Below are three example statements you can use for career development. Notice how they each follow this template, explaining the desire, the logic behind it, why now is a good time, and what it is that the other person can provide.
I have been in the same role for some time. I would like to prioritize growth and learning in the next half. Are there any stretch opportunities I can take on?
I have some capacity and want a chance to take on something new. Is there something I can do on the team, or a company-level initiative I can help with, in the next three months?
I would like to have a path to management within the next year. What concrete steps can I take in the next six months to set me up to grow in this direction?
By opening the door, you're giving your manager permission to help you. Remember, this is the opening of a conversation, not the end. Perhaps now isn’t the right time, or they feel like something else is a bigger priority. Even if that happens, by putting yourself out there, you are putting yourself in play. Once you’ve broached the subject, you will be on their radar. Those who ask are more likely to get what they want because their asks are naturally top of mind.
Being explicit about what you want takes courage, but it’s the key to making your voice heard and your desires are known. It is always better to put yourself out there than to be passed over for the next opportunity because no one knew you wanted it. Signaling your openness, telling people what you want, and giving them permission to help you will reduce the friction to having your requests met. Yes, it feels risky, but as the saying goes, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
With this in mind, I challenge you to make others aware of what you want. You may be surprised at the results.