6 tips for asking for help improving professional skills

You miss out on 100% of the help you don’t ask for.

In the current environment, where technology and workplace dynamics are evolving at breakneck speed, finance professionals need to be continuously growing and improving their skillset. And with all the pressures of the modern workplace, it can be tempting to approach skills improvement piecemeal, but asking for, and accepting, help is key to unlocking your greatest potential.

"We can't do everything alone," said Tal Goldhamer, CPA, EY Americas chief learning officer, based in New York. "As much as we'd like to think we're good at improving by ourselves, the assistance of others makes a huge difference in helping us realise where we can be better and how we can actually go about doing that."

If you're planning to ask someone for help improving a skill, whether it's a technical or "soft" skill, be clear in your request, express the impact their help could have, build in feedback loops, and say thank you.

Clarify what you want help with. Before you approach someone for assistance, it's worth taking some time to figure out exactly what you're hoping they will do for you. Do you want them to read and critique a lengthy project report, or would you like to meet for an hour every other week to review some things? Get specific about what the ultimate objective is, have a plan for improvement, and do some work on your own in preparation.

"Take the initiative so the person knows you're really invested and willing to put in the work," said Carla M. McCall, CPA, CGMA, managing partner of AAFCPAs, a CPA and consulting firm based in New England. "That way they know if they're going to take time out of what they're doing in order to develop your skill, you're really going to be serious about it and it's going to pay dividends."

Find someone you trust who is uniquely positioned to help you improve. If you don't already have someone in mind, now is the time to identify the person best suited to help you improve whatever skill you're working on. Good candidates include individuals inside or outside of your organisation who are especially skilled in the area you want to improve, mentors who know you well, or peers open to working on the same skill with you. Just make sure it's someone who will be honest and supportive.

"It has to be someone you trust and, ideally, someone who has a vested interest in your success," Goldhamer said.

In many organisations, including EY, employees have an assigned counsellor who offers career guidance, but Goldhamer said everyone is also encouraged to have informal mentors and sponsors. He added that the person you ask for help doesn't have to be senior to you. Peers can make great accountability partners, offer solid feedback, and join you in self-improvement, which can be especially helpful for those without in-house career counsellors.

"It can be lonely learning these skills on your own," Goldhamer said. "Try approaching a peer and saying, 'I would like to get better at storytelling. Would you like to join me on this journey?'"

Consider a variety of avenues for support. There are many ways to ask for help and improve professional skills, according to McCall. She recommends approaching your state society or professional associations or perhaps requesting to shadow or work with someone in a different function within your organisation.

"If somebody wants to increase their knowledge or skillset in a certain area, they can ask to shadow somebody at a meeting or during a project," McCall said. "I think a lot of people can learn better by seeing or hearing somebody in action."

She added that you could also ask your manager to support or cover the costs of external training and offer to teach the rest of the team what you learn. Many organisations have tuition reimbursement programmes that cover any course that would improve your skills and add value to the company.

Frame your request with a focus on the impact they could have. When you're asking someone to help you, McCall recommends framing your request as a desire to improve yourself and add value to your work and organisation. Goldhamer added that you should tell the person why they are uniquely positioned to help you and how their help could make a huge impact on both your life and the work you're doing.

Try to avoid apologising or diminishing your request, and instead ask them in a clear, confident way, something Goldhamer admits is easier said than done. If you're nervous about asking someone for assistance, try to remember that most people really do want to help others.

"We're surprised sometimes when people help us," Goldhamer said. "We often go to great lengths to avoid asking for help because we fear rejection. We fear that people are going to think less of us. We believe people don't really want to help, but the truth is we need help and the support of others to succeed, and in reality, most people do want to help and have an impact."

Follow a clear plan with feedback loops. As you're working with someone to improve a skill, McCall recommends building in "small wins" along the way, meaning clear checkpoints that demonstrate improvement and keep you motivated to continue. She added that you should make sure to gather feedback from your mentor or peer throughout the process, in case you need to make adjustments to your plan.

"Don't wait until the end," she said. "It's almost like an Agile process, where you're learning and doing along the way, so you can pivot. You don't want to get all the way to the end and realise you really didn't get that concept you learned back in week one."

Express gratitude. After someone has spent time helping you out, it's always worth taking a moment to say thank you. Depending on the situation, you could say thanks with a thoughtful letter, a small gift, or a public shoutout.

"Always express gratitude and appreciation, and do it in a way that is memorable," Goldhamer said. "Usually that's more than just an email, but be sure to share a bit of the impact their help is having and thank them for their time."

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at