Saying "No" and Still Getting Ahead

Sara Knapp

Post by Sara Knapp, Executive Coach

When I was in my early twenties, I worked as an auditor for a big accounting firm.  The hours were crazy. During “busy season” — which lasted four-to-five months of the year — everyone worked weekends. Every weekend. All day...every weekend. 

They paid me $25,000 a year which, even then, was less than minimum wage when you factor in all the hours I worked. But, like everyone else there, I wanted to become a chartered accountant and this was what was required. 

So, I did the work. And I hated it.  A few years along, and a new crop of “juniors” joined the firm, bringing with them a very different mindset. Starting with their ideas about working weekends. A flat-out “No” to that. 

They said, “Something is wrong with the way you operate if your schedules require us to work seven days a week for half the year.” Of course, they were right.  Management had to figure out what to do. We started with: “How can they just say no?” And “How can we force them?” It wasn’t long before we were asking the inevitable: “Why didn’t we ever think to say ‘No’?”  

It was a good question. Much of my approach to my career thereafter was informed by the answer I came up with. 

We didn’t say “No” because we didn’t think we had any right to do so and because we thought it would be the kiss of death for our careers. And perhaps, as a 21-year-old in my first real job, there was some truth in that.  But not a lot, as demonstrated by the new "juniors." It was a valuable lesson.  

I have been promoted quickly and often in my corporate career, and so people frequently ask me for advice about doing the same. Here’s what I tell them: Figure out what success looks like. Make sure your manager sees it the same way. Then focus on that, and say “No” to everything else — diplomatically, of course. 
Do it in a way that keeps your manager in the loop, or even better, actively supporting the decision. Say “No” to what doesn’t matter, so you can focus on what does. You’ll be doing what you’ve been hired to do: Delivering on your objectives. Because that is how you get ahead.