by Paul Sterett

There are many wonderful gifts I received from my father growing up, but one continues to stand out from the rest … the gift of “NO”.

Now, in my formative years I did not share the same opinion as my older self does.  Truth be told, my dad drove me nuts when he would say “No”, even in the face of iron clad arguments (given in what I thought was the debate we had going on).

In spite of the greatest persuasions I could muster, there were many times he would simply say, “No”.  When pressed for a reason, the reply was frequently, “Because I said so”.

Absolutely drove me nuts!

Throughout my teens I never gave up.  Some may call it hardheaded, but I prefer to call it persistence.  Every so often I could take my case to the Appeals Court of Mom, but it was tough to overturn my dad.  

Years passed.  I graduated high school, graduated college, got my first career job, got married, and had kids.  Of all my accomplishments, being a dad is far and away the most important and my favorite.  Watching my five kids (and one on the way) grow is nothing short of amazing.  Their different stages of growth and development bring a new adventure every day.

One of those new adventures turns out to be in the form of a 12-year-old who is becoming more aware and more independent (so she thinks).  To my teenage self’s horror and dismay, I’ve started to use something to help me on this adventure … “No”.  

When I first realized I had become my father, and reconciled the betrayal of my younger self, I was a little surprised, but not shocked.  My new perspective from raising my own children made me keenly aware of how important experience and discipline are in child formation.

All these years later, I see another profound benefit from the gift of “No” from my father.  “No” is a powerful tool in business.

About nine years into my first career job, the insanity of corporate dictatorship reached its boiling point.  After many months of planning I finished out my last day and started a new adventure building my own business.  I gathered all my resources, tools, and confidence and began to blaze a new path.  It was exhilarating.

Building my business brought me face to face with the harsh realities of entrepreneurship.  In the beginning, like the vast majority of small businesses, every hat was mine to wear.  Some days I wore them well and some days not so well.  Slowly but surely the business grew and I expanded, now able to share a few hats with a team.

In the beginning I said “Yes” … a lot.  In reality, there was very little I said “No” to.  For a time I was able to make it work, but it wasn’t too long before saying “Yes” began to take a toll.  

Saying “Yes” to everything stemmed from a lack of experience masked by the need for growth and survival.  Hindsight being 20/20, I see now I was driven by the shortsighted fear that if I said “No” to any project, I might miss out on work that would be the stepping stone to further growth and expanded capabilities.”  Looking back, my constant “Yes” did not give me success. The truth is, some projects happened to work out and some flat out failed  

These days “No” is an important part of our business and I’m more grateful than ever for the gift my father gave me.  Being open to “No” gives us the opportunity to step back and see if the things we consider saying “Yes” to are good for business or rationalized “good opportunities”.

Using “No” at home and in business requires the prudent judgment and the right motivation.  

My father’s love and dedication to my formation gave his “No” meaning.  He helped prepare me for life, fatherhood, and business through his commitment and consistency.  Early on, I heard “No” a lot from him, but as I matured, he began to ease back giving me more latitude to experience and learn things for myself.   Through his gift he helped me build a solid foundation for my learning.  It has allowed me to maximize my growth and minimize the ramifications of mistakes.

Now as a business owner, I continue to learn how “No” protects my team, clients, and my business.  The limits life places on time, resources, and skill sets demands a healthy amount of “No”.  Not every project or client is a good fit and that’s ok.  Not every opportunity, as exciting as it appears, is the right opportunity.  Saying “No” to an opportunity with the potential for greatness can be scary, but it can also be the right answer for the right time.

Business owners, what are your experiences with “No”?  Are there times you said “Yes” to the wrong clients, projects, or new hires?  Have you been reluctant to say “No” for fear of the unknown?  Do you give your team members the latitude to help make these types of decisions?  

I encourage you to lean into the unknown.  For many years I was reluctant but after I tried “No” out a few times the benefits to my business were very real.  As a team our moral and motivation increased.  More importantly, our work quality improved.  To be clear, I’m not suggesting you start slinging “No” around.  Be smart with it, but don’t shy away from it.

Employees, what are your experiences with “No”?  Are there times you wish your company’s “Yes” had been a “No”?  Do you wish you possessed the latitude to say “No” when it is warranted?  Conversely, do you possess the latitude and fail to use it for fear of the unknown?

I encourage you to lean into the unknown.  If you feel a “No” is warranted for a client or project be bold and speak up.  Your bandwidth and mental capacity are worth protecting and not saying “Yes” to everything is an important way to protect yourself and the business you work for.

For some, this is a crazy concept.  For others, they use “No” in a healthy and productive manner. If you are already in practice, share your perspective and success with others much like my father has done for me.  

As we all work to build better lives at home and in business, the experience and encouragement we share with others will have tremendous impact.  I am beyond grateful for the gifts my father has given me through many life lessons, even the gift of “No”.

artwork by Elaine Densmore