Learning to Say No—In Order to Grow

Written for EO by Chris Bray, founder and CEO of BiG Media, an innovation firm that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to increase efficiencies, reduce costs and unlock new revenue streams for content creation and distribution companies.

I remember the first time I turned down an offer. For my first few years in the TV business, I had taken every behind-the-camera gig that came my way. But when I was presented with simultaneously occurring jobs, I had to make a choice. One was for a repeat client as an assistant director. The other was for a new client as the main director. The latter was my dream. However, the thought of saying “no” to the former terrified me.

I worried that client would never work with me again. Nevertheless, I turned the job down. A few months later, the client called again for another job and offered me more pay. And you know what I said? “Sorry, I’m really focused on directing now.”

Illogical. Or so I thought until the client replied, “I know, but you are perfect for this, and we really need someone.” The client offered me more money than I had ever received.

No longer feeling like a dummy, I took the gig—and added “no” to my lexicon.

‘No forever’ versus ‘no for now’

In business, a respectful “no” feels final, but it rarely is. Besides, moving away from “yes” makes sense. The quickest way to destroy a budget is to agree to everything without forethought. Every time I said yes to projects with a return on investment that didn’t match my contribution of time, money and resources, I set back my business.

I know how hard it is to turn down work. Insecurity compels us to be agreeable. We tell ourselves that if we get a reputation for saying no, we will permanently close doors to new business. However, being a “yes person” can quickly become a nasty habit. A bad deal is a bad deal whether it is your first or hundredth client.

You must have the confidence to walk away; otherwise, you will undermine the value of your products or services.

Can it be difficult? Of course. But without “no,” you will be destined to fail—through overspending, devaluation and overcommitment. Besides, pushovers enjoy no leverage. “Shark Tank” regular Barbara Corcoran‘s philosophy is to focus on serving clients and the organization by being picky. This works wonders for sales professionals, according to research by Velocify. Selling pros who use “no” manage 12 percent more prospects than their yes-people counterparts. They also contact leads 33 percent more often.

Getting to ‘no’

If it feels like failure to decline offers, take a few steps to get reacquainted with the most high-impact two-letter word in the English language:

1. Practice prioritization.

Never say no without first understanding how much is actually on your plate. You need to weigh your duties to manage your time appropriately. Jot down each day’s to-do list, and give each responsibility a rating based on importance. Divide large projects into smaller chunks to tackle them a bit at a time.

Work on top-rated priorities first by blocking off time to complete everything. Give yourself permission to tell others that you’re not available—you are busy. Eventually, this daily appointment with your priorities will help you carve lines in the sand.

2. Jettison yes-folks.

In his book Good to Great, one of Jim Collins’ recommendations is to get rid of yes-people. Strong leaders have the confidence and are empowered by the company to disagree. Collins says the difference between good companies and great companies is whether leaders will debate in order to determine what is best for the company.

When everyone knows that the company’s mission is the thing that matters most, keeping the wrong people in the company is unfair to the other employees who advance the company toward that mission.

3. Know your ideal customer.

Know your customers better than they know themselves. As a consequence, you can say no in their interest. You can also ignore a lot of what they tell you. In their book Quasi-Experimentation: Design and Analysis Issues for Field Settings, statisticians Thomas D. Cook and Donald T. Campbell show that most customers are secretly yes-people. So adopt a Henry Ford mentality and don’t ask them what they want. Know them well enough to give them what they need.

When building business-to-business products, you need to know how people do their jobs. To do this, converse with them. There are surveys, but nothing is better than speaking with people. Without this kind of understanding, it’s impossible to build a product that serves their needs and adds value to their lives.

As someone who owns a tech company, I am a futurist. It is my job to understand the industry I am trying to serve, stay on top of trends, and forecast where the industry is heading. At BiG, we hire people who like to learn. If you enjoy learning, then doing research comes easy. Do enough research, and you will see patterns develop.

A huge reason “no” is difficult is the belief that you will somehow incur wrath if you say it. The only way to overcome that hurdle is to know your company’s value. You deserve to take on roles that make sense.

Being circumspect about job offers has been incredibly lucrative. I have never had someone in business dislike me because I said no. In fact, it has opened more paths than I could have predicted.

Chris Bray is the founder and CEO of BiG Media, an innovation firm that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to increase efficiencies, reduce costs and unlock new revenue streams for content creation and distribution companies. When not running companies, Bray is an avid angel investor, with investments in over 15 startups and multiple exits. Prior to BiG, Bray was the founder and owner of Bray Entertainment, a production company that has created, produced and delivered more than 250 hours of content.

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