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I hate asking for help.
I’m sure you know a lot of women in business like me — you might be one yourself. We preach the need to ask for help, to enlist mentors and sponsors to fill professional gaps and get ahead. Then we don’t practice any of that.
My case is particularly confounding. This year, I launched Lean In Energy, a nonprofit created in partnership with Sheryl Sandberg’s global Lean In organization that fosters mentoring relationships around the world. I also run a global digital community for women in energy and careers site that’s geared at busting the talent and culture gaps. My professional life is defined by helping women and minorities get ahead and encourage them to ask for what they need to get there.
And yet I refuse to ask for anything I need. It’s my shortcoming, in work and life.
Or at least it was — until Hurricane Harvey slammed into the great state of Texas and battered our incredible, resilient city with days upon days of rain.
Harvey forced me to give up my stubborn commitment to self-sufficiency and ask for and accept help. It sounds so simple, and yet it’s a lesson that bears repeating this week as we celebrate Mentoring Monday, in Houston and in cities around the country.
The day is engineered to give women the opportunity to ask for help from each other and to enlist help from men, too. Traditionally, we tend to think about the mentoring relationship as the junior-level employee seeking wisdom from the more senior executive — the women who have been there, done that. Click here to learn more about Mentoring Monday.
But after what I went through with Harvey, I can tell you: That definition gets mentorship all wrong. We all need help, no matter what we’ve achieved. And we’ve all got something to offer.
Like the man who showed up at my front door with a boat to rescue me from my reservoir-flooded home on Houston’s west side.
I thought we’d be OK. We were told to shelter in place. We were high and dry and using social media to coordinate rescues and meals for first responders across lower areas of Houston when it was clear our local officials needed the public’s help.
Then the tables turned fast. The rain filled the reservoirs and it seemed like there was no end in sight. On the night of Aug. 28, the Army Corps of Engineers made a difficult decision to release the Energy Corridor Addicks and Barker dams, and water filled the streets around my neighborhood. We went to bed that night unsure of what we’d wake up to, huddled upstairs after shutting off power to our main-floor level. But the water seeped into my home — slowly at first, and then rose faster. It was too late to leave and I couldn’t save my family by myself.
Terrified, I put my own oxygen mask on and called for help, and a man appeared at my door with a boat.
I don’t know much about him, and he doesn’t know much about me. His English was broken; my Spanish non-existent. But he helped my daughter and I climb into his boat and sped us through the waterlogged streets of my neighborhood to safety. He helped us when we didn’t know what to do.
I’ll never forget that man and moment. He saved dozens of people that day — maybe more. These were people he didn’t know. He had nothing to gain. But he did have something to give.
The women in business I know don’t like to feel vulnerable. Some don’t even acknowledge gender and brush it aside. We’ve worked too hard, put up with too much, come too far to risk even the slightest step backward. We want to help others, yet we dread standing on the receiving end of an outstretched hand.
But a surprising thing happened when I asked for help: Gratitude overwhelmed my loss of power and control. And it reminded me that we are all in this together — all genders, cultures, ethnicities and ages. It’s not only those on the top of the ladder looking down who have value and wisdom to add. It’s all of us.
That’s why inclusion is so valuable. Different perspectives, experiences and insights highlight the gaps in our knowledge, the flaws in our designs and the possibilities hiding beneath stale systems and processes. If we don’t open ourselves up to a little outside assistance and perspective, we miss out on ideas that could challenge the status quo and revolutionize our businesses.
Because old habits die hard, I’ll offer some advice: Ask for help and accept it when it’s offered. You need it — more than you know.
Katie Mehnert is CEO and founder of Pink Petro, a Houston-based global digital community for women and men in energy.