How to Succeed Professionally by Helping Others

Research shows that even if the rewards aren't immediately apparent, contributing to the success of others pays off in the long run.

Kat Cole started helping out early. Raised by a single mother of three who held three jobs to support the family, Cole entered the workforce as soon as it was legal. At 15, she started selling clothes at a mall. At 17, she added a second job at a restaurant—first as a hostess and then as a waitress. After juggling these jobs through high school, Cole became the first person in her family to attend college. She studied engineering and planned to go to law school, but those aspirations would soon be shattered.

The restaurant was Hooters, and Cole continued working there in college. When a cook quit, she volunteered to fill in. When a manager departed, she didn’t hesitate to cover that role too. By age 20, her restaurant responsibilities were so consuming that she failed her classes and dropped out of school.

There’s little doubt that Cole’s helpfulness paid off for Hooters. By filling in for a cook and a manager, she prevented long wait times and maintained customer service standards. Indeed, research shows that in restaurants, the more often employees help, the higher their revenue, operating efficiency, cleanliness, and customer satisfaction. This evidence holds up in a wide range of industries, from banking and manufacturing to healthcare and retail: helping behaviors play an important role in organizational effectiveness.

Unfortunately, when people like Kat Cole step up to help, they seem to make their organizations better at their own expense. In professional settings, it’s all too easy to take generosity for granted, especially when it comes from women. In a series of studies, NYU psychologists Madeline Heilman and Julie Chen found that volunteering to help colleagues boosted performance evaluations and rewards for men, but not women.

Simmons management professor Joyce Fletcher refers to helping behaviors by women as disappearing acts, as they often vanish without proper credit or reciprocity. “When a man helps a colleague, the recipient feels indebted to him and is highly likely to return the favor. But when a woman helps out, the feeling of indebtedness is weaker,” Sheryl Sandberg observed in Lean In. There’s no need to reciprocate, because “she wants to help.”

Wanting to help may have stalled Kat Cole’s education, but it’s also the force that accelerated her career. At age 32, Cole was named the president of a company called Cinnabon, Inc. She is now 35, and the company reached $1 billion in global branded sales last year. Although Cole’s helpfulness didn’t necessarily reap rewards right away, it paid dividends over time.

In my book Give and Take, I report evidence that being a “giver” who enjoys helping others can be inefficient in the short run but surprisingly productive in the long run. Givers tend to start out with lower sales revenue and lower medical school grades. In sales, givers often put their customers’ needs above their own sales targets. In medicine, before big exams, givers are so busy helping their friends study that they fail to fill the holes in their own understanding. Yet after a year in sales, the highest revenue belongs to those same generous people, and by the end of medical school, the top grades belong to the students with the most passion for helping others.

When I wrote the book, I attributed the long-term success of givers to two major forces: relationships and motivation. From a relationship perspective, givers build deeper and broader connections. When a salesperson truly cares about you, trust forms, and you’re more likely to buy, come back for repeat business, and refer new customers. From a motivation perspective, helping others enriches the meaning and purpose of our own lives, showing us that our contributions matter and energizing us to work harder, longer, and smarter. When medical students focus on helping others, they’re able to weather the slings and arrows of long hours and devastating health outcomes: they know their colleagues and patients are depending on them.

Beyond relationships and motivation, Kat Cole’s story reveals a third reason why helping others can yield long-term benefits: learning. By volunteering to help with different roles, she acquired a set of knowledge and skills. “When the cook quit, I learned how to run the kitchen, and when the manager quit, I learned how to run a shift,” Cole says.

At the time, Hooters was expanding internationally. At age 19, Cole was invited to Australia to open the first Hooters restaurant there. Although other candidates had college degrees and more experience, “I was one of the few people who had worked every job in the building,” Cole explains. “I was in the right place at the right time with a company that was growing. But at the same time, I’d worked my buns off to be known as someone who could get the job done… I genuinely wanted to help.”

When she dropped out of college at 20, it was because she was flying around the world to launch Hooters in Australia and Latin America. “I sacrificed the pursuit of higher education, and my dream of being an attorney with an engineering degree,” Cole tells me, “to follow my passion and help others build their businesses.” That year, she was invited to become the head of corporate training. She climbed up the ladder from there, opening more restaurants along the way in Asia and Africa.

Did Cole benefit from each of her individual decisions to help out by learning a new role? No. Over time, though, there was a cumulative benefit of learning the full set of jobs.

Even when there aren’t different positions to learn, helpfulness can fuel the acquisition of knowledge. Peter Audet is the managing director of a financial advisory firm in Australia, and his career was launched by the knowledge he acquired through helping. At 19, he worked as a customer service representative in an insurance company. He was so motivated to help the policyholders and agents who called in that he ended up educating himself about investing and retirement planning. Soon, he was the youngest department supervisor in the company, won the Personality of the Year award, and was profiled in a local newspaper under the headline, “You only get back what you give.” By 22, he had obtained the expertise necessary to become a financial adviser.

New evidence supports the notion that giving facilitates learning. In a study of employees at a large consulting firm led by Rutgers professor Neha Shah, the highest performers were those who provided the most help to colleagues in solving task-related problems. Why? As the consultants shared knowledge about the challenges that colleagues confronted, they gained specific insights about their own work and became better problem-solvers in general.

Despite the learning—and the meaning and relationships—there’s little doubt that as responsibilities grow and a reputation for helpfulness spreads, demands on time increase. “How do you balance taking care of yourself, or your family, and work, and friends? I don’t. No one does. No one balances it,” Cole reflects. “Some days you’re good at one area and not so good in the other, and then it flips the next week.”

Since there are only so many hours in the day, for leaders who embrace giving, one of the great frustrations is the inability to help everyone. When Peter Audet posted a job opening, he couldn’t bear to leave anyone unemployed. After turning down a group of candidates, he would start making introductions for them at other firms. “He gets very emotionally involved, and he was using up all his work hours on that,” one of his team members confides. They solved the problem by “excluding him from hiring—for his own good.”

In the transition from individual contributors to leaders and managers of other people, there’s a different kind of learning that givers need to pursue. It’s exemplified by Brooke Allen, a quantitative trader who was preparing to hire an administrative assistant. He posted an ad for someone “with a good heart and a giving personality.” The applications started rolling in, and Allen had 22 candidates. He didn’t have the time to interview them all, let alone find them jobs elsewhere like Audet, so he did something unconventional. He invited all 22 applicants to show up at the same time for an open house over pizza.

When they arrived, Allen made an announcement. “I’d rather everyone help each other find work than try to convince me they are better than the rest.” Since they all needed jobs, they should start helping each other do that—and he would help too. “If you want me to hire you then just get everyone else a job.”

In the span of 13 days, one candidate successfully landed jobs for three other people. Despite proving herself as a giver, she didn’t end up working for Allen. She had discovered a new skill: she decided to become a corporate recruiter, making her living by finding jobs for other people.

Instead of carrying the burden alone, Allen had the wisdom to engage the whole group in helping. This may be the most valuable skill that a giver can develop. In the long run, inviting others to help may be critical to sustaining our own sanity. It may also be the best way to facilitate learning and growth.

(Image via sezer66/