The Power of Asking

Sidney Kushner, Founder/CEO of CCChampions & KJ at center court being honored by the Celtics as a “Hero Among Us”

Some stories are worth retelling, and at the risk of sounding proud, well, this is one. This post epitomizes the meaning of Thanksgiving and this entire season for Vala Afshar and me — it is a story that gives thanks and plain old wonderful joy every single day. Hear Vala’s story about it from BIF10.

One of the biggest assets in anyone’s life is a generous network.

It is a gift that grows simply by sharing it. Think of it as the Law of Accelerating Returns — the more you share your network, the more people share it in return and the more the rate of sharing accelerates. My network has literally and figuratively been a source of survival. For most of us, networks have played a critical role in our lives, whether we realize it or not.

Three years ago, I asked the very humble super-networker Vala Afshar if he thought there were any common traits or patterns that could be ‘taught’ or encouraged for networking.

We came up with a few unsubstantiated traits based on the people we knew who were great connectors: 1) hard working (it does take work to network); 2) humble (now that’s pretty arrogant of me to say!); 3) quietly confident that connecting the people they introduce will result in something great even if it’s not yet clear; and, perhaps most importantly 4) who understand the power of the ask. For instance, Vala remembers arriving in America at age 10, escaping the 1979 Iranian Revolution not knowing any English, not blond and blue-eyed, and not stylishly clad. He also remembers the very few kids who overcame their shyness to ask him to play kickball — and how happy he was to be asked.

Sidney and KJ on the Jumbotron at TD Garden during a Celtics Game

Too many of us worry that asking will appear self-serving, even if it’s not. We fear rejection. We fear looking stupid. Perhaps some of us actually fear hearing a “yes” — what would we do then? It’s tempting to say that asking takes courage. But really, think about it — what’s the worst that can happen? You’ll hear a “no.” So, let me share a brief story about a couple of normal (well, in our eyes) people and a kid to illustrate the Power of Asking.

I first met Vala, CMO at New Hampshire-based Enterasys, now Extreme Networks, on twitter in early 2012 and reached out to him, since his tweets seemed so spot-on. We conversed over email and twitter, sharing stories of our jobs and eating lobster, which we both love.

We first met face to face September 2012 on my way up to Maine for my annual ‘sabbatical’. I was greeted at headquarters like a long-lost relative — including an epicurean delight of lobster risotto, fresh crab cakes and steak, prepared by Chef Brian Townsend (aka Director of Customer Service)*. Needless to say, we really hit it off. I also learned that Enterasys/Extreme provided network services to companies like the New England Patriots and the Boston Celtics.

Meanwhile, one of my mentees, Sidney Kushner**, had founded CCChampions, an organization that creates connections between professional athletes and children with cancer to provide a source of inspiration and excitement during a very trying time in children’s lives. CCChampions was working with over 6,000 professional athletes plus health care professionals, child psychologists, local students and community partners. Sidney’s compassion, drive and entrepreneurial savvy were contagious.

But let’s face it, Providence, RI, where Sidney lived at the time as a student at Brown University, was not exactly a professional sports powerhouse. But, Boston is nearby! So, sucking up courage, I ask Vala if he’d talk to Sidney and, if willing, introduce Sidney to the Celtics. What’s the worst Vala could say? No. Perhaps I’d look like a fool… but I was used to that. Vala said that after talking to Sidney for a mere 5 minutes, he wanted help. Since the Celtics were a fairly new client, Vala was a bit nervous about making the ask. Nevertheless, he did, and a 30-minute discussion ensued in which the Celtics decided to honor Sidney as part of their Heroes Among Us program at their January 9, 2013 game in a special in-game presentation. Vala said he had goosebumps and when he told me, I certainly did. When the Celtics called Sidney, he was speechless — all he could do was text me, not even talk. And the floor seats the Celtics offered Sidney? Well, he gave them to KJ and his parents! It was the first time KJ had been anywhere but the hospital or home in over a year.

On January 9th, Sidney was honored on the famous parquet floor of TD Garden, raising awareness so more kids suffering with cancer will have an opportunity for joy, inspiration and valuable distraction from their pain. As parents, both Vala and I can only imagine what this would mean to our children.

Let’s face it, Vala and I have gotten great great joy from bringing Sidney and the Celtics together — beyond expression, so perhaps it’s very selfish of us. Vala and other Brown University friends skyped with me via iPads so I could ‘be there.’ Needless to say, there were many many tears of joy! In the end, despite feeling awkward at certain moments, we really risked very little to help make this happen.

When we don’t Ask we are in essence saying “no” before the question has even been asked.

We are saying no to opportunities that change our businesses, our organizations, ourselves…and actual lives. So even if it feels uncomfortable, look for even just a small way can you use the “Power of Asking” in your network — for someone you work for, with or know. Make this holiday season, and even into 2015, your season of the Law of Accelerating Returns.


This was originally published in Harvard Business Review, January 8, 2013 and continues to be one of the greatest highlights of our (Vala and me) careers — being able to be a small part of an amazing day for Sidney Kushner & KJ is an eternal gift.

Rich Casselberry, Chef Brian Townsend & Vala Afshar — the Greeting Committee

*This feast has become an annual tradition — 3 years in a row so far — where a group of friends share fellowship and the incredible cuisine of Chef Brian Townsend (aka Director of Customer Service).

**Sidney graduated from Brown in 2013 and CCChampions is having an impact beyond his dreams. I am very honored to be on his board. I am more honored to be a part of his life and his work… and to just know someone like him.