...Without Saying No.
In our coaching practice with corporate leaders, non-profit leaders, business owners and individual professionals, one of the most common areas of development is priority management. While some still refer to this challenge as time management, we beg to disagree. You see, these leaders aren’t really managing time as it is fixed at 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week, etc. What these leaders are managing is what they do with their time such as how they manage their priorities. Prioritization, by definition, means saying yes to the most important (urgent or not urgent) and saying no to the least important. Therefore, learning to say no is a crucial leadership and priority management skill.
In an article from the October 2021 issue of Inc. Magazine titled, “Yes, it’s OK to say No”, Fawn Weaver, the founder and CEO of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, wrote about the importance of saying no when appropriate. As I read the article (several times), I saw the same words we’ve used over these past thirteen years to help our clients manage their yeses and nos. I’ve pulled 3 direct quotes and added our version of how leaders can think about applying the key point to their business.
- “Everything that makes it onto my calendar has to be deemed HBU: highest and best use of my time.” One of the key challenges along these lines we see leaders struggle with is what they determine to be their HBU. Every leader gets the same 24 hours in their day to work with: Determining their HBU is a function of how they choose to use those hours and the energy they choose to expend during those hours. Prioritization, by definition, means saying No to something. All Leaders have a list of to-dos in a day. Every day, they draw a line on the to-do list identifying their “Must-Dos” which fall above the line and then saying no, or not now, to the items below the line!
- “A big part of learning to say no is letting go.” Somewhat related to the first challenge is the idea of letting go of what leaders know in the now knowing full well they should lead at a new higher level. “But who will do my previous work?” is the common pushback. We see this often in leaders who have moved through the ranks and not shifted their thinking about what defines HBU at their new level. To do this well, a leader must have a clear sense of their priorities at their current level. We see strategic leaders still being too focused on operational activities and operational leaders too focused on tactical activities because it is what they are respectively comfortable with. Of course, leading at the wrong level means the strategic work and operational work are respectively neglected with less desirable results!
- “...I’ve discovered that people most respect those who are willing to give them a well-reasoned no, even many times, to get to the right yes.” While the respect comes from a well-reasoned no, it also comes from a well-delivered no. In working with our coaching clients in this area, we use a phrase “Say yes to the person and no to the task.” What we mean is to acknowledge the person making the request of the leader’s time and learn to say no to their request. We take it a step further and teach leaders to say no to the task without using the word “no”. For example, how many leaders reading this hear, “Have you got a minute?” and instantly cringe about being interrupted, again! Consider this response, “I’m working on a critical task and am open after 3:00 this afternoon. Let’s get something on the schedule and talk then.” Yes to the person and no to the task without saying the word “no”.
No is such a simple phrase to say, yet very difficult to say in the moment. Leaders want to be helpful and available to their teams. Carried to the extreme and without regard to their own priorities creates stress and anxiety as the commitments to yes overwhelm their capacity and capability to deliver. As we wrote about this back in 2016, “Your yes means nothing, if you can’t say no!”
How are you communicating your well-reasoned no? If you are not sure, we can help.