Leadership requires making decisions. Though we are in an increasingly data-driven world, many decisions a CEO faces are bedeviled by insufficient information, compelling arguments on both sides and passionate advocates you don’t want to demotivate. Over the years, I've learned the importance of saying "no." Not only does turning down initiatives and events free up time but can also help you stay on-point with your business's goals.
Below I’ve identified five of the most popular "flavors" of no and why you should practice each of them.
1. No to a bad idea
You’d think this one would be simple. “Jack, that’s a bad idea, we aren’t going to do that.” Yet, we have so bought in to the trope that “there’s no such thing as a bad idea,” that we twist ourselves into knots -- and waste a lot of time -- trying to honor the idea, or at least the creator, rather than calling it what it is and moving on.
The more experience and talent there is in the room, the less explanation or handholding is needed and the faster you can get to no. That said, ego and pride of ownership is tied to every idea and managing the emotional aspect of a no is critical. This is particularly important for more junior contributors that have not developed their protective callouses and might require additional coaching.
2. No to a good idea
If your product or service is good, there will be no shortage of ways to expand it -- new features to add, ways to monetize and offerings to attach, to name a few. There may be so many good ideas that you can’t pursue them all at once. That’s where you must be particularly mindful of your business strategy and protective of your resources. Do too many things at once, even if you have the resources, and you can confuse your customers.
Constantly ask yourself, “what are our strategic goals for this quarter/year” and how much does this idea move us forward?” Then say no -- or "later" -- to anything that isn’t going to represent a big leap forward against what you’ve already established is important.
3. No to a client
Clients frequently ask for things that we really, really want to say no to, but we usually don’t. Sometimes we give them the benefit of our advice with an open invitation to ignore us: “We recommend against that course of action, but…” you get to win because you pay us.
Occasionally, a client will ask for something that will actually hurt your business, as opposed to something simple like a price discount. For example, they will expand their business with you if you give them some sort of exclusivity. When you know you have to put your business before the client, you must say no and hope that they respect you and your business needs enough to accept the answer.
4. No to a seller
You depend on your sales people to keep the lights on and the investors happy. So when one of them tells you they can double their productivity if only X, the rules for saying no to a good idea kick in -- even if it’s a bad idea. This is a special category, though, because a seller is prone to hearing the no and translating it into “we will not give you what you need to succeed here.”
The seller is usually responding to a need expressed by a client (e.g. their current strategy is to buy something different than what we offer and so the seller sees a huge opportunity). Usually, though, the only way to fill the perceived gap is to materially change the current business to be more like another company. The trouble here is deciding whether the need is a new opportunity for the organization or whether it is fool’s errand. In the first case, some of the best ideas come from the folks closest to the customers. However, a new product can just be a "me too" offering that opens your business up to a new set of entrenched competitors. This second case of a suggesting an expanded offering might just be a throw away suggestion given by the buyer to spare a seller’s feelings in response to the question of “how can I win more of your business.”.
5. No to a candidate
As CEO, particularly in a small to mid-size business, you are often the last interview before a hire. The only reason a candidate meets you is because everyone else has given a thumbs up. In most cases, you are not an expert in their skillset so yours isn’t a technical interview, it’s an attempt to get to one central thing: Will this candidate thrive here? Sometimes, the answer is no.
While you may not have to tell the candidate directly, you do have to tell the hiring manager that their finalist cannot work here, for reasons completely separate from what the hiring manager may have prioritized. You can agree that they have the skill, knowledge, experience and still say no. With this no, you are telling your manager that her search isn’t over, she may be back to square one and the problem this hire is intended to solve is going to go on for a while longer.
It’s important that you be able to explain in very human terms what you saw inside the candidate that made you uncomfortable and that you not let the hiring manager rebut your assessment. After all, the hiring manager did pass your test, and your job now is to help them thrive.