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9 CEOs on how to say ‘no’ effectively

Effective leaders have to get picky about how they’re spending their time.

9 CEOs on how to say ‘no’ effectively
[Photo: Jon Tyson/Unsplash]

Most startup CEOs are doers. They have to be. Yet the ever-mounting goals of building a company make it especially tempting to wedge just one more iron in the fire. In fact, startups seem to attract leaders who are hardwired for it.

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New findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences show entrepreneurs accept a higher level of risk, but they’re also driven to control it. Naturally, saying “yes” to more opportunities can feel like a way to do that.

But saying no is sometimes the way to go. Warren Buffet famously said “really successful people say no to almost everything.” Effective leaders have generally realized this. Here, nine of them share their strategies for saying “no” without burning bridges or missing out on key opportunities:

Start with your “why”

“Having belief in your vision should give you the confidence to pass on opportunities that might be a distraction,” says Nick Martin, CEO and cofounder of Joe Coffee, an app that lets people pre-order drinks from local coffee shops. “If you find yourself trying to talk yourself into an opportunity or reevaluating the very principles for decision-making that have gotten you this far, double down on ‘why’ you chose your existing path.”

Looking at the big picture tends to put opportunities into perspective, Martin adds. That will help you decide if an opportunity gets you closer or farther from where you want to be. “I always ensure that everything I do overlaps with at least three of our guiding principles,” says Jared Cannon, founder and CEO of eco-friendly meal service Simply Good Jars. “If a task or ask does not, then the answer is simply no.”

That’s echoed by Nirav Shah, CEO of Sentinel Healthcare, a remote management solution for hypertension, who says he tries to “focus on saying yes only to the most important tasks that will help meet our main business priorities.” He admits that’s sometimes a team effort. “I’ve asked my team to tell me when I’m veering away from these essential tasks—and we get back to work.”

Reflect on the ROI

Though we all know it, it bears repeating: Time is money. So, critically ask yourself what—if any—value this timesuck will deliver.

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“There’s an endless stream of opportunities but a finite amount of time each day,” says Nils Mattisson, CEO of Minut, a smart home alarm. “Rather than look far ahead in the calendar for some white space, I tend to ask myself whether I would want to take this meeting tomorrow. If not, I probably don’t want to take it three weeks from now either.”

Vicky Hsu, CEO of the health and productivity app Habitica, also points out that “new intros and opportunities don’t exist in isolation.” Instead, they tend to have a snowballing effect. “If I have to say no, it’s usually because the alignment isn’t obvious—or, because we are short on time, energy, or resources and the opportunity doesn’t bring enough value to compensate for the deficit.”

Don’t get distracted

Once you’ve identified your top priorities, don’t let new opportunities break your focus. Stay the course, and you’ll reap the benefits. That recently rang true for Martin. He says he and his team had to practically put on blinders while working on backend solutions, admitting that it was “tempting at every step to take our eye off the ball.”

“If we hadn’t doubled down on our principles when uncertainty was at its peak and opted for immediate gratification, we would have lost our way and been none the wiser on what it really takes to scale a consistent experience across a network,” he says.

Phone it in, literally

We’ve all sat through meetings that could have been emails or phone calls. When an opportunity comes knocking, be practical. Ask yourself if that coffee date is really necessary.

Sometimes a coffee needs to be a quick call—or a call needs to be an email,” says Sara Raffa, who cofounded Coterie, which sells and delivers curated party kits. Raffa recommends setting boundaries and sticking to them. “We value our evenings as time to unwind. So, we tend to say no to evening events, unless we can clearly see the value in it.”

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Delegate or delay

Remember that you don’t always have to deliver a hard “no.” If an opportunity seems like a good fit, you can ask someone on your team to investigate it. “Not everything needs to be fulfilled by the CEO, and it shouldn’t, honestly,” says Scott Smith, the CEO of CloudApp, a cloud-based screen- and video-capture software. “If there’s an opportunity that can be delegated to a team member who is able to fulfill it, then you should do that.”

You also have the option to kick the can down the road. “You’d be surprised by how easily you can delay certain opportunities,” Smith says. “You may miss out on some that don’t fit your immediate strategy, but you can focus on maintaining a relationship that may bring that same opportunity to you again when you are better suited to fulfill on it.”

If you do decide to delay, it’s critical you explain why the timing isn’t right. When you’re honest, you might be surprised by what you discover. In fact, Roman Kalista, CEO of Nutrient, an automated grocery shopping and nutrition solution, points out that passing on an opportunity is “a weird opportunity to learn.”

For example, you might decline an opportunity by saying: “Unfortunately I and my team can only focus on building the product and user feedback at the moment.” By playing your cards, you are opening yourself to feedback, Kalista says. “There might be a better way to spend my time, and the other person can still convince me that the meeting will bring value.” And if they can’t convince you the opportunity is worthwhile at this moment, you’re probably safe passing on it.

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About the author

Beck Bamberger founded BAM Communications in 2008 and writes regularly for Forbes, Inc., and HuffPost about entrepreneurship, public relations, and culture.

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