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How to Say No at Work

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The way you set boundaries can increase respect and personal power.

Tyronne Stoudemire, chief diversity and inclusion officer for a global consulting firm, tells an impressive story of a time he said no to his CEO, something most would never consider. Earlier in his career, Stoudemire’s firm, white and male in its top leadership ranks, determined that it needed to create a broader diversity and inclusion strategy. Already heading the most diverse teams in the company, and known for the engagement of his people and as a developer of leaders, Stoudemire seemed an ideal fit. He politely declined: Accepting would mean leaving a revenue-producing role for what might be seen at the time as a more symbolic one. Since the firm had no one who “looked like him” at the top, he was concerned he wouldn’t have the credibility or power to make an impact. His CEO understood.

Many talented executives can feel pressured to demonstrate commitment, team spirit and superhero stamina by agreeing to impossible workloads, multiple roles or situations that don’t work for them. They say yes in spite of a vague sense of dread or what intuition warns. They don’t strategically assess the situation and negotiate a workable plan.

With board, staff, client and stockholder demand for progress, and a new minority leader named, not long afterward Stoudemire presented the firm’s first internal diversity program, with 700 participating. The CEO declared, “Whoever organized this program needs to be part of my executive committee!” Stoudemire, hearing new opportunity, followed up. He was asked to consider a global role to operationalize a diversity and inclusion strategy. Given the more visible evidence of public and organizational commitment and urgency this time, Stoudemire made three key requests for development of what was now seen as a business unit: The unit must have a significant budget; it must be revenue-generating; and the CEO himself must be its senior business sponsor. All were accepted. The initiative has become enormously successful, and the firm now consults clients in attracting, retaining and developing diverse talent.

When considering saying no:

  • Clarify the question and be strategic. What are you really being asked to do? How will success be measured? What do you need to win? How vital is your expertise? The early stages of a leadership role, including the negotiations, are often when you have more bargaining power.

  • Be fearless. I asked Stoudemire how he had the courage to say no to his CEO, and he immediately said he doesn’t operate out of fear.

  • Make clear requests. It dramatically increases the likelihood of getting what you want. I once coached a quiet, unassuming younger client to speak to her supportive boss sooner about her ambitious career goals, rather than waiting months for her review. She was amazed to be promoted a short time later, as soon as he learned of a good fit for her.

  • Know yourself and your value, and follow your inner voice. Know your strengths and where you need support. Set things up accordingly. Stoudemire knew his track record and expertise, and frankly, who he is personally gave him power. He had a reputation for directness, honesty and courage.

Jackie Sloane is an executive coach specializing in leadership communication. Her clients report greater effectiveness, visibility, influence and satisfaction through becoming more strategic in how they work with others. Have a topic you’d like to see covered in this column? Email us at editor@executivetravelmag.com.

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