how to assess opportunities and get comfortable with the word no

How to master the art of saying no

Find yourself saying ‘yes’ a lot? It could be doing your career, and your wellbeing, serious damage. This piece shares some tips and advice on how to master the art of saying no.

This is Part Five of the Women’s Agenda Emerging Leaders Playbook, supported by Charles Sturt University. Find the series here.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

You’ve heard it before: Say yes. Yes to opportunities, to networking, to meetings with potential mentors and advisors.

Say yes to things that will push and stretch you, to opportunities that will help you grow and learn.

Say yes to speaking opportunities, to media opportunities, to social media activities, to committees and advisory boards and being part of great events and initiatives.

But there’s a downside to all this. Saying yes to everything can be a huge drain on your time and energy and can detract from your actual goals. These pursuits are also often unpaid.

For some people, all these yeses can stem from the fact they either haven’t learnt to assess opportunities according to their needs or they haven’t mastered the art of successfully saying no.

The art of saying no

Law firm partner Fay Calderone concedes she’s had to learn the art of saying no, which is often at odds with her nature.

“What I’ve learnt the hard way is that for everything you don’t say no to, you are saying no to something else,” she says. “That might be time with your family, the early morning yoga session you needed, the opportunity to invest more time in your business or to mentor your staff. Every yes is costing you something.

“It means I have to intentionally try not to overcommit, and to be more strategic and mindful about the choices that I make,” she says.

Leaders can often find themselves committing to activities and projects months in advance, which seems feasible from the outset. But when these activities creep up, panic-mode sets in. That’s why mindfully assessing each and every opportunity is essential.

Still, when it comes to marketing opportunities, Fay says she’s careful to stay open. She believes professionals and entrepreneurs should only stop marketing once they get busy. Resting on your coat-tails thinking work will just flow organically is a risky mindset. “I treat all the presentations and writing I do as important,” Fay says. “I never park those things as something that I can avoid because I do still have the fear—healthy or unhealthy—that the practice will plateau.”

Putting your hand up

Successfully assessing when to say yes involves returning to your leadership goals, and then determining whether the opportunity presented actually gets you any closer to them.

This may mean putting your hand up to do things you haven’t planned for, that you’re not prepared for, but will lead to huge gains in your career objectives.

White Ribbon CEO Tracy McLeod Howe subscribes to this school of thought. While her leadership journey was not entirely planned, her willingness to put her hand up for fruitful opportunities propelled her.

“While my current leadership career has come as a bit of a surprise for me, it’s in some ways been planned in that I’ve taken opportunities as they’ve come up,” she says. “I’ve put my hand up to do things when I may have been nervous and didn’t have the experience, but I said I’d give it a crack. I made the road, by taking the opportunities available.

“I put my hand up for things that I’m terrified of. When worried, I put it in the context of world disasters. I might look silly, but it could be amazing. Take a chance,” she advises.

Now an established leader, Tracy weighs up opportunities with more deliberation. “At the beginning of your leadership journey, say yes as much as you possibly can. That’s what I’ve done. Now I need to master the art of saying no a lot more, because I’ve locked down responsibilities.”

Plays for assessing opportunities

Trouble saying ‘no’? Try the ‘I’m a little overcommitted’ approach

Don’t feel you have to make an excuse or pretend that you’re already booked on any given day. Instead, simply state ‘I’m a little overcommitted at the moment’. People will understand and appreciate your transparency.

Assess the opportunity in line with your goals

Does the opportunity presented get you closer to one of your goals? Does it put you in front of people who can help you achieve your goals? And if it doesn’t align with a goal, does it leave you fulfilled in a way that makes putting in the time and effort worthwhile? If so, then go for it!

Mentally calculate the hours involved and then add some

Before saying yes, spend time mapping out exactly what will be involved and consider the full extent of what’s required of you. Conference calls? Event attendance? Speaking material? All of this requires many hours of effort.

Now give yourself an hourly rate

Time is our most valuable resource, so what is your hourly rate? Factor in caring arrangements, personal sacrifices and hours lost on business productivity. Now, what is the dollar value of your time? Will investing that time bring back a return? Are you able and willing to give that amount of money away? This should help clear things up for you.

Be mindful about what you stick in the diary

A clear diary should not be the only reason to say yes to an opportunity. Don’t rely on this as a tool for assessing where to say yes and no, especially when agreeing to things in the distant future. Be mindful of how you plan on filling your diary and what your weekly schedule typically ends up looking like.

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