Saying No at the Right Time

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One of the most essential lessons in one’s career is learning to say “no” at the right time.

Serving clients is paramount in the world of marketing and communication. The importance of service applies to agencies, consultancies, and internal departments. Service excellence requires negotiating shifting situations. It means serving the client’s needs, accommodating their whims (let’s be honest…), and applying a strong expert point of view to every relationship and project.

That’s where saying “yes” comes into play. Here’s how I’ve seen it in my own professional life. From the earliest roles in my career, I learned the art of saying yes—not a resigned yes but truly taking on ownership of my commitments.

At first, I learned to say it to different project tasks, taking every opportunity to learn and add value, building skills while serving clients at the same time. Every project has unclaimed tasks around the margins that one can volunteer to do.

As I got more experience, I learned how to say yes to entire projects. I developed a better sense of my own capacity and what crosses the line into burnout. To the extent that I could influence the decisions, I would nudge towards projects that provided complex and exciting challenges, exploring skills and strengthening my capacities.

From there, I learned when to say yes to entire clients, looking for client relationships that offered opportunities to build trust and deepen engagement. I started to see that some relationships just work better than others, to learn how to spot those relationships, and then to get myself completely involved in them.

But wait—isn’t the title of this piece “Saying No at the Right Time?” It’s precisely the same trajectory.

The better you get at learning what tasks to take on, the better you get at spotting those tasks that just don’t make sense for you. While some tasks fit your talents and match your personal development goals quite well, others may simply be better suited for other people.

You also become adept at seeing which projects and client relationships are part of your overall plan and which ones keep you in stasis or even erode your talents. Luck and instinct may help you land in the right places for your plan sometimes. Learning to say “no” explicitly, clearly, and gracefully has a more reliable outcome more often.

This skill can be vigorously tested if you ever strike out on your own, however. It takes courage and discipline for a business owner to turn down revenue, and there will be times when financial realities force you to silence your inner no. Come to think of it, it happens earlier in your career, too. You have to balance your personal objectives from what the company and the client need from you right in the moment. Over time, success brings you more options.

Wherever you are in your career, keep your eye on the path and remember how all the yeses and nos add up to the long-term realization of your potential. Bringing this mindset to bear in the decisions you make and the options you take can be enormously helpful.