Saying no can be difficult, especially when colleagues and staff do not easily receive your response to a major issue. It takes courage and conviction to go against the pack. But it can often lead to bigger and better career achievements.
I've always tried to use doing the right thing as my guiding principle in making management decisions. At times, others can have difficulty understanding why I'm glued to this approach, but consistency and positive results usually win them over after a while. I’ll describe three experiences in which my decision to say no was not only the right decision for the company but boosted my career.
Example 1: Saying no to a valued staffer
In the early 1990s, I needed to add a help desk manager to my management team because of an increasing user base of primary business applications and the company network.
My top help desk support specialist was a bright, young, and energetic fellow who had excellent management potential. He did a great job in his role, and other staffers looked to him for help constantly. He had natural leadership instincts, so I was not a bit surprised when he approached me for the new management position.
My answer to him was no. Initially, it was a shock to him. But while he was an excellent future management candidate, he was still too green to do the job. I decided to hire a seasoned manager with several years of help desk management experience. I knew that with the growth of our company running at over 200 percent per year, with no end in sight, I needed a tenured professional. I had to fill this position with someone who could get out in front of the power curve vs. learning how to manage in such a high-growth environment.
In making my decision, I also made a commitment to the promising staffer that I would help him develop his management skills so that he would position himself for a new management role. I also made sure he understood that it would take one to two years.
Within two years, he got his management shot and developed into a strong manager in his own right—later receiving an award as the runner-up CIO of the Year in the state of Georgia.
Years later, we talked about the decision I had made, and he said he had had difficulty understanding it, but after working with me—and the new manager I hired—he fully understood it. He believed that postponing his management responsibility and my working with him had made a big difference in his success as a manager.
Example 2: Saying no to company leaders
Not too many CEOs want to hear a senior manager recommend that the company eliminate or close down part of the business. That's especially true when the manager has been with the company less than three months. But that’s exactly what happened in my former CIO position.
I joined a small, $100 million health care company with two divisions. The larger division made up 90 percent of the revenue and had just turned a profit. The second division had approximately $10 million in revenue but had lots of problems; becoming profitable was not in sight. While it offered complementary services viewed as a strategic value, the immediate challenges were too great, in my opinion.
The problem was that the entire company was in a turnaround state. The company had excellent potential and was positioned to become an aggregator that could help consolidate one segment of the health care industry through acquisition. This was a great opportunity but the clock was ticking, and unless we could get all the pieces working well, we were going to miss the ride.
After assessing the technology situation in the small division, I quickly made my recommendation to sell it or close it. There were too many operational management issues, and the division had significant capital requirements that posed a threat to the company. I knew that our management team could fix the problems of this smaller division, but I also knew it would take too much of our time to do so and would divert our attention from improving the company's core competency with the larger division.
My recommendation to eliminate the smaller division was initially frowned on, but after hearing the analysis from my assessment, company leadership decided to examine the issue further. After taking a closer look over the next two months, it decided to sell the division to a company providing similar services, and it’s now going strong there.
In the meantime, our parent company became positioned for a major acquisition both financially and managerially. I'm convinced that my willingness to step out on the limb and say no enhanced my position with our CEO.
Example 3: Saying no to a client
Many years ago, our company reorganized and I became the manager of business application support services for about 25 hospitals in the Southeast. Our company's renewed focus on client service assigned new account managers to our hospital clients to ensure they were getting the services they needed. We also planned to migrate to our company's newer suite of software products.
In one hospital client situation, the new account manager was trying desperately to get on the good side of the client, which was very "needy" and was abusing our services.
There had been problems in the past with this client, so there were legitimate service issues when I picked up the management responsibility. After doing much more than should have been required to address these past problems, I decided that the client hospital would have to pay for any new programming services from my group.
My decision was not exactly what the account manager wanted to hear. I was quickly pulled into a meeting with his manager and the VP for the region. After explaining the full story to this business-minded VP, he directed the account manager to ask the client for payment not only on all future work but also for the last two projects that we had completed for that hospital.
This was definitely a time when saying no was the right thing to do; it saved the company money and resources and showed my value as a manager.
It's hard but worthwhile
Saying no and making an unpopular decision will always be difficult, but the pain shouldn’t thwart you from doing the right thing.
Some of the hardest and biggest decisions for managers and companies have to do with determining what they’re not going to do. An ability to say no at the right time enhances your value to your company, your client, your staff, and your career.
Mike Sisco is the CEO of MDE Enterprises, an IT management training and consulting company. For more of Mike's management insight, take a look at his IT Manager Development Series.