From July 9-10 I’ll be attending Mentor Capital Network’s (MCN) Annual Gathering in New York City. This is an event that I look forward to and have attended each year since I became involved with MCN in 2011 as a contestant in their annual business plan competition. One of the reasons why I’m an ardent supporter of this network is that unlike other business plan competitions, it offers a global community of support to startup social enterprises where experienced professionals in a variety of fields, such as impact investing, social enterprise, law, marketing, and organizational consulting, serve as mentors to entrepreneurs of early stage businesses that are solving the world’s toughest social and environmental challenges.

Not only is MCN good at helping social entrepreneurs who are often just starting out, it's also good at asking for support. I can attest to the effectiveness of their appeals, which has prompted me to contribute as a prize sponsor, donor, and mentor. One thing I've learned in my own experience, as well as working with changemakers is that building a support system and consistently using it isn't as easy as this may seem.

Why do support systems matter and how do we build them?

I recently sat down to prepare for a session that I’ll be co-presenting at the Annual Gathering with my colleague, Sarah Brooks, on “Martyrdom in Social Charge: How to avoid burnout and build a support system.” Our interest in leading this interactive discussion stemmed from a concern we share that social entrepreneurs are prone to martyrdom. I admire people who have the courage to dedicate their lives to a cause they personally identify with and appreciate all of the sacrifices that come with this decision. However, the pressures they face in terms of quickly demonstrating results that can be scaled to address a seemingly insurmountable challenge with minimal resources puts them at risk for burnout, especially if limited attention is given to their own well being and that of their organization.

The theme of our presentation is that regardless of whether you’re seeking to change a habit or change the world we all need support. Since nothing of any consequence can be achieved on our own, it’s in our best interests to build support systems at home and in the workplace. A support system consists of the people who help us. The key to a robust support system is variety in terms of the types of people in your life, like cheerleaders and critics, and different ways support is provided, such as serving as a sounding board, offering guidance, and providing hands on assistance. The quality of our relationships also contributes to the health of support systems.

Interestingly, the experience of preparing this presentation has offered valuable insights into some of the challenges faced in building a support system. As I wrote about some of the factors that prevent us from developing a supportive work environment, I noticed that some of them were also hampering my own productivity. Metaphorically I was being absorbed into an energy sponge where my anxiety about delivering an excellent presentation was causing procrastination, and these feelings were taking up considerable time and energy without producing any meaningful results. Aside from feelings of martyrdom and energy sponges, not asking for support or doing so in a way that makes it difficult for others to provide help can also get in the way of building a support system.

How can we use support systems more consistently?

Instead of spinning my wheels by continuing to soak in these energy sponges, I reached out to my mentor for advice. It turns out that what he had to say was a reminder of what I already knew. The best ways to drain energy sponges are to shift our mindsets to more positive ways of thinking (particularly if we’re prone to martyrdom), keep our egos in check by not letting them get in the way of asking for help, and contract for support. Support systems are especially important to maintain if we’re having difficulty managing our egos and mindsets.

In this instance, a contract for support is a verbal agreement I have with my mentor that I can reach out to him whenever I need help. In addition to listening to what I have to say by making it clear that I’ve been heard and understood, he offers guidance for addressing my situation, and holds me accountable for taking action. I’m also fortunate in having a mentor who knows when I need to be cheered and when to be challenged. As in this example a contract for support is not a legal document, but a clearly articulated and mutually understood agreement that can be made between two people or by a group.

While contracting for support is important, it’s only useful if we’re open to receiving help in the first place. Once I recognized that energy sponges were getting in the way of finishing the presentation, I made the choice to activate my support system instead of continuing to soak. Just as in any relationship, it’s important to maintain your support system so that it continues to be available when you need it. Using a support system is similar to developing other skills in that the more you practice, the better you get.

The better we are at giving and receiving support, the more likely we are to be successful in being the change we wish to see in the world in addition to having more satisfying relationships.

Let me know how your experiences with support systems have helped or hindered your efforts as a changemaker.

This post was published by SEE Change Magazine on July 8, 2015.

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