Kristin Muhlner is the CEO of NewBrand Analytics, which helps companies monitor social media chatter about them. She also has mastered the art of saying no, resolutely refusing to become overextended in all corners of her life. Fast Company caught up with Muhlner to learn how to wiggle out of networking, email, and even—gasp!—charitable work.
"Quite candidly, I’m really ruthless in terms of doing only those things which are absolutely essential. I’m saying no to a lot, both in work and life. I see a lot of working moms who think they have to be 110% at work, and then volunteer to run the school auction. We’ve become so awful at saying no. I try hard to become incredibly selective about those things I engage with, so I can be really present for the stuff that I’m doing, and be really engaged with my kids in a meaningful way. People are trying to accomplish too much, and they’re killing themselves in the process."
"I see a lot of peers insert themselves in all sorts of activities where it’s probably not necessary. That either indicates they don’t trust their teams to work independently, or they think they’re so central they have to be involved in everything. I think I’ve failed if I haven’t empowered my team to accomplish what they need to on their own. When I was consulting, I learned quickly that everyone is replaceable. The circle closes quickly when people leave. Once you start to realize that, it lets you step away from feeling like you have to be the center of every decision."
"I always say no to networking activities. They just make me want to peel my skin off. The last thing in the world I want to do is posture in front of a bunch of people I don’t know very well, for what is largely an amorphous or unmeasurable outcome. Here in the mid-Atlantic, there’s a huge number of events one could attend. You could literally spend every night going to some tech meetup or CEO dinner. It’s often the same people, and it feels like they’re there to promote their own agenda. It feels like you’re getting fed a line."
"I love email. I’m probably a rare breed in that regard. I love it because it allows me to work asynchronously and to consume vast amounts of information rapidly across the business. But unless I’m specifically asked a question, I don’t respond. If a CEO responds, everyone thinks they need to respond back, and that kicks up a lot of dust."
"I say no to a lot of philanthropic activities. I do think they’re incredibly important and I appreciate the time people invest in it, but for me personally, unless it’s a cause I’m deeply committed to, I generally say no. It takes away from me doing the specific essential things in my life. I also say no to a lot of women’s events, women-in-tech events, and women mentorship events. At the end of the day, I want to help people move ahead generally, but it doesn’t matter to me whether they’re women or men. Sheryl Sandberg would no doubt be disappointed in me."
"I met recently with the chief marketing officer of a respected brand, and as soon as I sat down, she said, ‘It’s really great to meet you, but I have to tell you: I’m leaving the company next week. I’ve been replaced. No one knows except my family and you.’ We had the most authentic, vulnerable, open conversation. The payoff was purely emotional. I cultivated a personal relationship I’ll really enjoy. Whether it’s just that next time I’m on the West Coast we’ll have a glass of wine, or that she lands at another company and we work together, it doesn’t matter to me. Her willingness to be authentic and vulnerable in that moment allowed me to be authentic."
"People often ask me: ‘Did you work really hard to get to this place?’ My answer is always: ‘No! Absolutely not!’ I didn’t. I’ve kind of always been this way. Before I had children, it was about spending time with friends, cooking, not being slavishly devoted to my job. My beautiful 80-year-old aunt in Kentucky gave me some advice once, about relationships: ‘Start out like you can hold out.’ She told me that when I was getting married, referring to the fact that I shouldn’t necessarily sign up to cook dinner and do the dishes every night. If you’re the person who says yes to every project, that’s a dangerous mentality to get into. Let’s not talk about work/life balance: Let’s just talk about living, about making great choices both at work and home."
"During a major product release, I watched a member of my management team work incredible hours. He was stressed and exhausted, and on three different occasions I said, ‘Go on a vacation,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, but I’ve got this-and-this to do.’ Finally I called his wife and said, ‘I’m staging an intervention. Your husband is about to kill himself. I want you guys to go on a vacation. I’m going to pay for it. There are two requirements: It needs to be a week, and it needs to happen in the next two.’ Five days later they were gone, and when he came back he was in a completely different mental place."
"I noticed early on that if I didn’t honor my need for sleep, I became a miserable person. I see my friends killing themselves and wearing it as a badge of honor that they sleep only four hours a night. We can be incredibly effective and productive, but we’ve got to rest. I’m of the opinion we should do less and sleep more."
Join our live chat on Friday, October 10 at 11 a.m., where we'll talk with Kristin Muhlner about saying "no" to every extra obligation for a whole week.
What did you finally decide to say "no" to at work? Tell us about it in the comments.