How to say no

Mar 02, 2020

Leading a successful organization takes the courage to try new ideas, weather many storms, and know how to say no.

Something in the water? In rapid succession, three company leaders told me they had reached their outer limit of frustration and wanted to quit. While they came from different organizations, they had several things in common. They were experts in their respective fields, hardworking, and dedicated to company success.

They also faced three intractable problems concerning the leadership transition of their senior colleagues:

  1. Staunch resistance to yielding client control. Their colleagues clung onto client control, refusing to pass it to the next generation who had assumed the bulk of the work, including relationship tending.
  2. No mechanism to confront resistance. None of the companies had instituted a governance structure that would impose repercussions for not relinquishing control. Their boards of directors included no outside board members which, in addition to conflict avoidant cultures, allowed them to sidestep difficult conversations about the future.
  3. Disinterest in installing the next generation of leaders. While the companies had identified emerging leaders, the senior colleagues showed no interest in committing to a specific transition timeline.

All three companies were experiencing the consequence of not solving these issues – threatened loss of key talent and their future. The question is how to fix the problem.

The power of “no.” The leadership transition issues described above have rational solutions. Orderly succession plans, cultural transformation, and specific decision-making agreements can be designed, along with appropriate compensation adjustments. However, without someone willing to assume the responsibility for negotiating and enforcing change, any such planning becomes moot.

Too often company leaders duck the responsibility because it involves tough conversations. Consultants can surface useful information and provide insights to unblock resistance to leadership transition. However, their impact only lasts as long as they do. Unless company leaders can keep former dissenters aligned with the new order, the company will revert to its former problems.

To solve the problem, companies must train leaders on how to say no.

No doubt, saying no is challenging. As any parent will tell you, to persuade and then establish sticking power, “no” has to mean something. You need to know what principles you want to advance and the lines in the sand you will draw to enforce them. As a parent, you want to protect your children’s health and safety. As a company leader, you want to promote smart and sustainable business growth.

The leader’s job is to determine which lines to draw for the welfare of the company and to say no when the lines are crossed.

For example, in the case of leadership transition, the leader must make the case for its importance, then draw a line in the sand and enforce it. Failure to do so will impair business growth as top talent leaves.

Five pointers for saying no. Here are five pointers to help leaders say no:

  1. Keep your eye on the prize. Remember you are there to build a successful future for your company.
  2. Don’t make it personal. Your goal is to protect the enterprise. That means reinforcing the broader business frame. If a practice group leader will not commit to a viable client transition plan, the leader might say, “No, we cannot live without a plan. We risk losing our next generation of leaders who stand ready to move up. Further, our clients are undergoing their own leadership transitions and their successors are our emerging leaders’ peers.”
  3. Be prepared to deal with anger, acting out, and unexpected behavior. Many people fear change and will do their utmost to fight it. Stay firm, respectful, and breathe deeply as you seek to understand root causes of resistance.
  4. Be willing to impose consequences. Know what the company can and will do if no agreement can be reached. The company governance documents should provide mechanisms to adjust roles and authority. Seek legal advice for interpretation and negotiating strategy if needed. While sometimes necessary, using a lawyer as your spokesperson should be done judiciously, because it could escalate matters to a level no one wants.
  5. Call for reinforcement. Consider adding outside board members. Granting ultimate authority to the board for company strategy, leadership evaluation, and succession will reinforce leadership direction and best practices.

Leading a successful organization takes courage to try new ideas, weather many storms, and know how to say “no.” As hard as this last one is, in the end, everyone will benefit.

Julie Benezet spent 25 years in law and business, and for the past 18 years has coached, taught, and consulted with executives from virtually every industry. She earned her stripes for leading in the scariness of the new as Amazon’s first global real estate executive. She is author of the award-winning The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None. Her workbook, The Journal of Not Knowing, provides a self-guided discovery mission to navigate the adventure of pursuing one’s dreams based on the Journey principles. She can be reached at

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.