The Importance of Saying NO

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned in my life and in my career is the significance of saying NO. For me, as I suspect for many, saying NO didn’t come naturally, especially since I was always eager to do good work and to be a good team player. And yet, it wasn’t until I learned to say no to opportunities, projects, and people that were not consistent with my vision and core values that I was able to make major strides in my life. The ability to say NO is a valuable skill. In fact, without it, it’s nearly impossible to achieve your vision and your life’s dreams.

The Path to Your Vision

Whether we’re building a company, working within a company, working towards our career goals, or working towards personal success, creating a vision around where we want to be is a critical first step. The significance of a vision is that it helps us focus our energy, attention, and efforts towards a clear and seemingly tangible goal. And when we have an eye on that vision, we can create a natural path towards it. Now, the path often ends up being jagged and different than what we expect. However, ultimately, it’s this path that helps us find our way to our vision. As we travel down on path to our vision, many distractions present themselves along the way. These distractions can take the form of ideas, projects, or even people that will lead us off-course. If we were to take on each of those off-ramps – entertaining any shiny new idea that comes our way, projects that would lead us astray, or people that would change our minds, then we would never reach our destination.

The challenge is that it’s often hard to detect these distractions as they appear. In my own life, with a bit of hindsight, I’ve been able to look back and realize that by saying NO to some of the things that came my way, I helped reach our goals better, faster, and with less effort.

Identifying Distractions

So how do you say NO on a timely basis? How can you say NO before you’re distracted? How do you avoid veering off course before it’s too late? In my opinion, the best way you do this is by bouncing new projects, ideas, and ways of doing things off of your overall vision and core values. If anything doesn’t fit into your vision, you have to find the courage to say NO.

Some of the most powerful steps you can take to help mitigate distractions is to clearly identify your vision. By having a clear destination, you’re able to look at the big picture and understand what constitutes an opportunity versus a distraction. Once you know where you’re headed, how you want to get there and the kind of people you want to travel with, you can and should develop the mindset to say NO to things and people that don’t fit them.

In my first job as a CFO, we were operating a very successful mortgage bank. The fast-paced growth of the company and its many operations were dizzying. Fortunately, our CEO and executive team realized early in this growth phase that we needed to be clear as to the vision for our company. We took the time and defined who we wanted to be, which was a uniquely positioned high-touch service provider of mortgages and mortgage servicing. It was because of this clear vision – which was well-described, documented, and communicated to the entire company – that we passed on many new opportunities. The opportunities at the time were abundant around no-document, fast turn-around, highly-leveraged mortgages. A lot of companies who entertained these opportunities did very well. For us, however, the approach was inconsistent with our vision, so we said NO to those types of loans. Having stayed true to our foundational approach, we focused everyone’s energy, expertise, and training to be very good at what we did. It was clear to us that we would not be as deeply experienced in our chosen field if we had taken on many new ways of doing business. I’m confident that this clear focus and utilization of our talent, time, and money to stay the course towards our vision ended up saving the company and allowing us to thrive when rate spiked, and many others went out of business.

Later in my career, as the CEO of our franchise system, I was eager to take the time to clearly define our vision. We knew that our north star was making sure each franchisee was successful. Every year, I would ask our teams to set aside a few days to identify strategies for that given year that would support our overall vision. In these discussions, team members would bring up projects and ideas that they believed helped support our vision. When deciding on adopting a plan, we would ask whether it would help us reach our vision of ensuring our franchisees are successful. In fact, I would specifically ask the question: would this help our franchisees be more successful this year? And that would often help us eliminate projects or plans that would serve as a distraction to our vision.

The challenge was that because of our many successes and large footprint, many service-providers and suppliers would approach us with proposals that often seemed like wonderful ventures. But if we were to tackle each and every one of them, we would not have been able do any of them correctly and with due attention. In order to do a project well, one would have to understand the parameters, plan around execution, create timelines and milestones, recruit team members, train team members, project out costs and ROI, etc. We knew that each of these steps would require clear thinking, planning, and execution. We had to therefore, distill major projects to just a few that supported our vision very closely – clearing our path from distractions.

While difficult, saying NO is especially critical when it comes to people. People can change the culture of a team, the culture of an organization, and even your own points of views. The way you can gauge whether people fit within your group is to bounce them off of your core values. Much like the vision for the company or project, it’s important to take the time to define your core values. These core values help guide you to recruit and retain people that are well-aligned with the organization. Just because someone doesn’t fit into your core values, it doesn’t mean they’re not valuable or great. It just means they’re not aligned with your path at that moment. I remember that at a company where I ran a lot of operations and had a large sales team, we had made a list of our core values. These values supported the profile of the kind of salesperson who was consultative, cooperative, and transparent. Our techniques supported an approach that was low-pressure with the expectation of a long sales cycle. When recruiting, I interviewed a man who, by all measure, was great at selling. Having spent some time with him, the recruiting team agreed, however, that although he may have done well in many sales positions that the stylistic differences could potentially change our culture and therefore our core values. I’m sure he ended up continuing his many successes elsewhere and by saying NO to him, we allowed ourselves to recruit someone that fit us better who ended up being an excellent, long-term sales advisor.

Clarity of vision and core values help an organization and an individual focus their effort, energy, time, money, and creativity towards their common goal and with the people who are well-aligned. In order to stay the course to success and to avoid detrimental distractions, we should bounce plans against our vision. And in order to have cohesive teams, we should bounce people against our core values. If a good fit is not there, we need to have the courage to say NO.

Overcome the Fear of Saying No

I know it’s sometimes scary to say NO because of its potential negative repercussions. You may find yourself concerned about losing out on opportunities. Or you may think if you say NO others may consider you difficult and uncooperative. It’s reasonable to consider these risks before you take your stance. An effective way of assessing the wisdom of saying NO and saying it effectively is to follow these 3 steps.

Step 1: Have clarity. The best thing to do is to first be true to yourself. Before you decide whether or not to say NO, take the time to be clear about your reasoning and your objectives, so that you are personally sold on this idea. As an example, at BOMANI Cold Buzz, we are often approached for sponsorships in venues to highlight our product. Having identified our vision and clearly knowing the voice and essence of our brand, we can decide whether an opportunity is consistent with our brand and consumers. We also consider timing, investment, and our overall growth strategy. It is with all of these considerations that we can then fully vet an opportunity with full clarity. By the time we decide to pass on any such proposals, we are very clear as to our reasoning.

Step 2: Understand the effects of your NO. It’s critical to understand the net result of your saying NO within the context of where you are, what you’re saying no to, and the people who will ultimately be impacted by it. Be thorough in your understanding of how this NO will change your circumstances. In the same example with BOMANI, we make sure we take into account whether the particular venue will be open to use at a later date. Or whether our partners could be negatively impacted if we turn down the proposal. Understanding the net results of our decision is important to consider.

Step 3: like anything else you do in your life, mitigate any negative effects by the way you present saying NO. Once you have clarity that saying NO is the right step and you take the time to understand the net effects of saying NO, you can be prepared to present it in the right light. Perhaps- as it is often the case- you’re aware of other ideas and opportunities that may work better. No matter the underlying reasons, it would be best to make sure that when you present your NO, that you are clear, confident, and sensitive about how it will impact others. Through this sensitivity, you can position your stance with regard for others and regard for the general success and objectives for all.

It Helps to Say NO

Saying NO can be a powerful skill that helps us stay on our chosen course to personal and professional success. Ideas, projects, and people that don’t fit our vision and core values may be wonderful but could hinder our ability to reach our destination. Although not easy, a well-thought-out and contemplated NO can be the best thing you can do for yourself and for your organization.

Shirin shares lessons learned from a career of success in business.

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