When Was the Last Time You Said 'No?'
Written by Susanne Biro
I am a Seth Godin fan. If you are not familiar, you just might want to be. Indisputably one of the great marketing minds of our time, Seth is a clear and poignant communicator of big, important ideas. Simply put, his messages matter not only to your ultimate professional success, but to the success of your industry overall.
Recently, Seth posted the following list of “no”s on his blog:
No, we don't take clients like that.
No, that's not part of what we offer.
No, that market is too hard for us to service properly.
No, I won't bend on this principle.
No, I'm sorry, I won't be able to have lunch with you.
No, that's not good enough. Will you please do it again?
No, I'm not willing to lose my focus, and no, I'm not willing to compromise.
A simple but effective reminder of how critical it is to know who you – and your brand – are, is served up in the power of a single word: No.
The clearer you can be about who you are, the stronger and more valuable your offering, and your brand will be. When you know who you are – what your values are, what you stand for, what you will offer and how – the better able you can be in setting the necessary boundaries. In plain language, it’s about learning to say “no” to the many opportunities in which you could partake but, when push comes to shove, probably shouldn’t.
As is reiterated by the French artisan baker Lionel Poilâne, “In business, it is very important to be able to say ‘no’ when you feel like saying ‘yes’ would mean losing your soul.” Knowing who you are remains at the core of our decisions and is a powerful place to come from when so many either don’t know who they are or worse, try to become too many things to too many people. In short: When you know who you are, you can focus. When you know who you are, you can say: “No.”
I find it curious that many people feel they have to be dishonest to others when faced with a choice between making up a story or simply saying: “No, I’m sorry I won’t be able to have lunch with you.” Why should the reality be so difficult to say? Far too many people feel they have to come up with some excuse or reason as to why they cannot – or simply do not want – to do something that’s not in the best interest of themselves personally or professionally.
The implications of this disempowered state – the avoidance of a simple “no” – is highly relevant to what occurs in more important, professional matters. And, that is to say nothing of what it is like to be on the receiving end of disempowered people. For example, if I ask you for lunch and you claim you didn’t get my voice message until too late, but your story doesn’t add up, the result is that I no longer trust you. The very outcome you were hoping for – to not damage our relationship because you simply don’t feel like lunching today or have other things you’d rather do – is exactly what results. I find it sad so many talented people feel so vulnerable professionally that they don’t yet know the freedom and success that can result when they finally stake claim as to who they really are.
In the words of the late Steve Jobs: “And it comes from saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things to make sure we don't get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We're always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it's only by saying ‘no’ that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.” Many of us admire the contributions and brilliance of Steve Jobs and wish we could be more like him. What we fail to recognize, however, is that the opportunity to be the kind of person worthy of our own admiration is always right in front of us. And it’s summed up in a two-letter word.
Now, let’s make this personal:
• What are your top 5 values?
• What is your ideal professional reputation? Write it down.
• Do your answers to the above align with your organization’s brand?
• How well do your daily interactions deliver on your ideal professional reputation – your personal leadership brand?
• If I came to your organization and spoke with the people with whom you most interact, how many would be able to recite your answer to questions 1 and 2?
• Given the above revelations, what is the one thing (yes, one thing) you most need to focus on in 2012?
And given the above, are you committed to using the word “no” a little bit more? I hope the answer to that is, well, yes.
About the Author: Susanne Biro is a senior leadership coach with Bluepoint Leadership Development and co-author of Unleashed! Expecting Greatness and Other Secrets of Coaching for Exceptional Performance as well as the corresponding Leader As Coach workshop. She can be reached at [email protected]
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.