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Leadership calendar    Jul 20, 2023

The Power of Saying No to Amplify the Impact of Yes

Returning rejuvenated from a recent and much-needed vacation (despite the challenges of air travel these days), I had the opportunity to reflect on my time away with my wife and friends. Our journey to Park City, Utah, for a beautiful mountain wedding, allowed us to continue on and explore national parks and forests like Arches, Bryce, and Zion. The trip was a wonderful experience, enhanced by the lack of constant connectivity due to poor cell service and intermittent Wi-Fi.

In today's hyper-connected world, the desire or compulsion to stay plugged in seems ingrained in us. However, I firmly believe in setting clear boundaries and living by the mantra that time away means truly being away. Unfortunately, many of my friends, who are also business owners and corporate executives, find it challenging to say no to demands on their time. As a result, they struggle to manage the overwhelming number of requests and the never-ending juggle of priorities.

During one evening of our vacation, we discussed the importance of regaining control, reducing overwhelm, and embracing the art of saying no to make their "yes" more valuable.

Saying no can be difficult, but recognizing its value is a good starting point. For CEOs and senior executives in fast-paced growth companies, the art of saying no is an invaluable skill, assuming the right systems of people, processes, and clarity of expectations are in place. Unfortunately, the reality often differs from this ideal. And the impact is felt down and across the enterprise.

In his exceptional book, "Essentialism," Greg McKeown speaks about the misinterpretation of the word "priorities." He notes that in the 1400s, when the word "priority" entered the English language, it was singular, signifying the one thing that takes precedence over all others. However, over time, the word evolved, and now we use the plural form, "priorities," frequently.

Despite having multiple important aspects in our lives, we should continually ask ourselves, "What is the most important thing I need to do today?" By adopting this approach, we can effectively identify the one task that will bring the most satisfaction, have lasting importance, and make everything else easier to manage.

While the demands of our jobs may often encroach on personal time, the ability to free up time and focus on strategic issues is a skill that can be learned.

Here are a few simple approaches to master the art of saying no while maximizing the power of yes:

  1. Prioritize with Purpose: To make your "yes" more meaningful, gain a clear understanding of your priorities. Identify what matters most to you and your key stakeholders, what requires immediate attention, what can be delegated, and what can wait.
  2. Be Transparent: Effective communication is crucial when declining a request. Clearly explain the reasons behind your decision, such as conflicting priorities, limited resources, or potential conflicts. Express your commitment to maintaining respectful relationships, as candor fosters understanding and builds trust.
  3. Offer Alternatives: Saying no doesn't have to be a dead end. Instead of simply rejecting a request, offer alternative solutions or suggest other suitable resources. Redirect requests to appropriate channels without guilt or recommend individuals or teams better equipped to address them. Demonstrating a commitment to finding viable solutions while managing your workload sends a powerful message.
  4. Practice Self-Care: Saying no effectively requires taking care of yourself. Recognize your limitations and avoid overextending yourself. Make time for relaxation, exercise, hobbies, and quality relationships. Replenishing your energy will increase your overall effectiveness when saying yes.

By mastering the art of saying no, you can reclaim your time, focus on what truly matters, and maximize the impact of your "yes."

Our vacation experience also reminded me of the words of Peter Block in his book, "The Answer to How is Yes." He encourages us to be gentle with ourselves and not solely focus on what works or is measurable. Instead, we should explore our deeper purpose, dreams, and ideals. It's essential to strike a balance between practicality and meaning to fully live the life we envision.

As Block puts it, "I would urge you to explore how focusing too quickly and exclusively on what works can have the effect of distracting us from our deeper purpose and sense of fully living the life we have in mind. In other words, my wish is that we exchange what we know how to do for what means most to us."

The work of building and leading a high growth company requires speed, endurance, and energy. But not at the expense of mental and physical health. We all need to re-energize. By supporting and helping your employees find the right balance, they will join you more energized instead of dragged along for the journey.

Steve is an accomplished and mission-driven business leader, 2x former chief people officer, and trusted partner with the board, CEO, and executive team.  Known for his intentional, pragmatic, and values-driven leadership, Steve is a highly effective executive and team coach, advisor, and facilitator.