The Power of “No”

When I was first starting a business, I never seemed to have enough hours in a day for myself, my health, my business, or my loved ones but found myself throwing precious minutes and hours away for others, often total strangers. Requests to pick my brain, advise on a project, serve as a sounding board, go for a coffee, proofread a pitch came thick and fast, and my default response was always to say yes.

Until one day I read an article, or maybe a book (I think by fellow alumna Heather McGregor) where it said that if something didn’t directly support my personal or professional objectives, then I should say “no” to it. Without apology or qualification, just a simple but firm “No thank you, I don’t have time for that right now”.

At the time, it was a bit of an epiphany. Of course I didn’t have to help everyone. Nor should I want to or try. We all have real constraints on our time and energy and need to be careful about how, where, and with whom we invest that time and energy. Subtraction, not more addition, is key.

And over time I’ve developed a few key habits that have made saying no a little easier, and a little less awkward: finding and using gatekeepers (PAs or VAs or a call answering service that filters incoming requests); creating boundaries around what I say yes to (limits on the number of pro-bono work and free mentoring I do); and sharing ample free content about commonly asked questions I get (through my You Tube videos, webinars, newsletters, and podcasts). All of which then allows me to devote the rest of my time to paid, business-enhancing work, and strike the right balance (for me) between external and internal generosity, between giving without being exploited, between being a “nice girl” and being a grown up.

It seems crazy to say this to a community of business leaders, but none of us should let ourselves get guilted into working for free! (I wonder the women amongst us will find this more challenging as we are still socially and culturally expected to be accommodating and obliging and open to doing unpaid labor).

But saying “no” isn’t just about what we give. It’s about what we take in, too.

Not all advice is worth accepting. Not all feedback is relevant or useful. We need to learn to trust our instincts and filter the advice and feedback that so often comes our way. Is the person giving the advice qualified to give it? Have they done what we are doing? Have they worked in the same industry? Do they have specific and relevant experience? If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, then why would we let their input in?

We wouldn’t take tax advice from a hair dresser, and we wouldn’t take style advice from an accountant (sorry accountants!). Friends, family, and even so-called experts don’t always know what they’re talking about.

And finally, sometimes we have to say no to our customers. We can only create or offer what we can create or offer. Yes, it’s important to know what they want, but we don’t always have to be the ones to give it to them. As Henry Ford famously said “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Customers are good at validating, but not good at innovating.

So no matter what industry, what stage of business, or what position we’re in, we need to get comfortable saying “no” and get confident using our own best judgement to filter the input we get from others.

Because if we don’t protect ourselves and our time, who will?

If we don’t create rules for ourselves (no coffee chats during the work week, no more than five minutes devoted to “brain picking” requests…), who will?

If we don’t take ownership over our time, our businesses, and our strategic direction, then everyone else will. And that is no way for a leader to lead.

About the author: After a thrilling career at the CIA, Rupal Patel moved to London and started her first six-figure business from scratch. Throughout that journey of growth and transition, she found herself coaching and mentoring other entrepreneurs and corporate executives to become better, more audacious leaders, and being invited to speak at events around the country.

As a leadership and business coach, her mission is to help founders and corporate executives find their voice, unleash their potential, and reach new heights without the pressure to balance everything “perfectly”.

​Her upcoming book “From CIA to CEO” draws on her CIA training in high-pressure performance and agility, and combines those unique insights with the business grounding of her MBA, her own entrepreneurial journey, and her leadership work with clients over the past six years. It is a one-of-a-kind, thought-provoking read for anyone who wants to think bigger, lead better, and live bolder.