Finding ways to help the people around us

"If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a month, get married. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody else. "

– Chinese Proverb

My family is big on helping others. I've had it drilled into my skull from an early age that I should be giving back. Both my parents come from extremely humble backgrounds, and both had a lot of help from family, friends, and people who seemingly had no reason to help them. Pairing that help with a lot of sweat, they gave me, and my brother more means and a more comfortable childhood than they had. They're both always helping people, and people with less of a giving mindset might ask themselves: "What's in it for them?" The truth is a lot.

Scientific research provides compelling data to support that giving is a powerful pathway to personal growth and lasting happiness. Even small acts of kindness practiced every day can make our lives better in every single aspect. The Catch 22 is that we can't do it for that reason. We're less authentic when we bring a "what's in it for me" stance to how we help people. As a result, we end up finding fewer opportunities to help people and not building trusting relationships. People can sense when we are helping them to get something in return. It's harder to build trust that way.

When I moved into management, pretty suddenly, my job was 99.9% about helping other people. My success became about making others successful. It took me some time before I learned how to do that properly. There are several challenges in helping people:

  • People have different maturities and understanding of the context they need. Sometimes what's an excellent opportunity for them is beyond what they can see and understand right now.
  • The sheer variability of it: some people need content, others need unblocking, others need context, others need purpose, others lack trust, others need sponsorship, support.
  • We can't do the work for them. Ultimately this creates people without autonomy and doesn't help them grow into their roles.

So I started doing some simple tweaks to how I talk to people, apply my time, and think about helping others.

Asking Open-Ended Questions

Asking "How can I help" will usually yield an empty response. As much as it would be convenient for people to have that answer ready, they typically don't know how you can help. They don't know who you know, what you know, etc. So as much as it makes us feel like we did our jobs, a simple "how can I help?" is usually not enough.

What I've found works way better is asking open-ended questions. Questions that prod into what we want to learn, but let the person elaborate further. Some examples I use are:

  1. What is one thing you think we should be doing as a team/company that we aren't doing?
  2. What do you need to be more successful here?
  3. What's one thing that is confusing right now?
  4. What's your top priority until our next meeting?
  5. What do you understand is a very successful outcome for the next X months?
  6. What's one thing that you wish you had more feedback on?
  7. What do you feel is a bottleneck or a blocker for you to do your best work right now?
  8. What's one project/team/person you wish you could work with/on? Why is that?

Take the time to talk to people you know that might benefit from your help and ask them these questions, and you'll find so many opportunities. But to find and seize these opportunities, we need to prepare ourselves.

Preparing ourselves

Being prepared goes a long way in helping others. We can spot opportunities for people and act on them. Sure asking and understanding people's blockers, bottlenecks, priorities, etc., is a great way to start, but it won't be enough.

One of the most important things is being available. If we don't have the time, we won't be able to help. If our schedule is jampacked, it's way harder to fill it with what comes up when we find opportunities to help people.

Another critical thing is having context. When we become managers, gathering information becomes one of the most vital parts of the job. Understanding and articulating the main goals of the larger organization and how our team best fits in those are the most basic parts. On top of that, it helps to understand who's a reference on different topics; who's working on which projects; what new technologies, processes, and good practices other teams are deploying or testing out; being on top of our game functionally, understanding trends, and staying technical–if you're a manager and think that's impossible to achieve, check out these five tips to stay technical. The more context we have, especially closer to the domain or team of the person we're helping, the more we can help.

Finally, another important way to be prepared is to have a diverse, capable, and robust network of people around us who we deeply know and care about. Knowing where people came from, where they want to go, how they want to get there, their strengths and weaknesses help us make meaningful connections between those in that network.

Being prepared enables us to make decisions and spot opportunities to help people grow and add value to who we know. But we'll still not act on many of those if we don't take risks.

Taking risks and sponsoring people

Quite often, what people need is not mentoring, advice, or even introductions. It is sponsoring. Lara Hogan talks about this topic way better than I ever will, so the best thing I can do is refer you to her content. Sponsoring means enabling people–usually through some personal risk for ourselves–to tackle that project they want to work on or take on new responsibilities. A good sponsor pushes people forward, recommends them for opportunities they would otherwise take longer to get, creates visibility for their work, and challenges them.

We may know that they're not ready yet. Or think that there are other risks in doing that now, but taking that chance on people can help them step up their game and grow way faster.

When people talk about mentors who helped them in their careers, they usually talk about sponsorship. Somebody that went above what would be "safe" and took a chance on them.

In Conclusion

Finding ways to help people is not always easy, but using these three tips makes it easier:

  • Asking Open-Ended Questions
  • Preparing ourselves
  • Taking risks and sponsoring people

Genuinely helping people and not expecting anything back is the way to go. Of course, it will eventually help us back, making us happier and encouraging our personal growth, but there's no telling when and how that will happen. So don't look to your network as something to extract value from. Instead, look to them as people. As people who you can help grow faster, connect, and do bolder things.

Floating green leaf plant on person's hand Photo by Ravi Roshan on Unsplash