Mastering the ‘no’: The CEO’s tool for triumph | Inquirer Business

Mastering the ‘no’: The CEO’s tool for triumph

/ 02:02 AM October 23, 2023



What is the most critical word in the CEO’s dictionary? The ‘no’ is the most powerful word.

Many great entrepreneurs, founders of billion-dollar businesses and Fortune 500 CEOs heard a lot of ‘nos’ on their way to the top in the face of adversity. ‘No’ is a word that stops many talented people and many potentially significant projects dead in their tracks. Why? Because they let the ‘no’ from others define them and give up on their dreams and big stretch goals because of fear of rejection.


Chances are you have experienced something similar because most of us have. The real magic lies in reframing the ‘no’. It should fuel your fire. Shrug it off and tell yourself you will prove them wrong.


The ‘no’ to fuel your fire

Countless individuals from all walks of life who went on to reshape our world had experienced massive rejection before. Take J.K. Rowling: She faced rejection from about 12 publishers before succeeding with her Harry Potter series​. Steve Jobs was fired from Apple. Jack Ma of Alibaba faced significant rejection in the job market, having been turned down by the police and KFC. Notably, 24 people were interviewed and 23 were hired when he applied for a job at KFC, except for him. He applied for 30 different jobs and was rejected by all of them. Before starting Disney, Walt Disney was fired from a local newspaper, the Kansas City Star.

The list goes on and on. You have already lost if you let the ‘no’ define you.

The ‘no’ to power your passion and focus

You have to say ‘no’ to the good to say ‘yes’ to the great. In the end, ‘no’ is all about the power of prioritizing and choosing the best opportunities.

By saying ‘no’ to less critical projects, a CEO can ensure that the company’s resources are directed toward high-impact initiatives. For instance, a CEO might decline to invest in a new marketing campaign to ensure that funds are available for a crucial product development phase.

It’s easy to get sidetracked by enticing opportunities. CEOs maintain a razor-sharp focus by saying ‘no’ to ventures that fall outside the core objectives. For example, a CEO of a tech firm might say no to branching into a trendy but unrelated market, keeping the company on track with its primary mission.

The ‘no’ you need to insist on

Be cautious of ‘yes’ from other people in your teams and company, including at the board level—their ‘yes’ is often a ‘no’ in disguise. They are too afraid to say it because they do not want to engage in conflict or have a difficult conversation with the CEO or owner. I have seen this countless times with companies at the board level, especially in some Asian cultures, because people do not want to say no to requests from people of higher authority, wealth or standing.


Of course, this does not work. They defer the conflict and make it bigger. All challenges grow with time. It is much better to admit immediately that you cannot get something done by a specific deadline rather than saying you can and failing to meet deadlines afterward. The negative impacts are much higher then.

We see that phenomenon happen in some cultures more than others because people are more comfortable deferring conflict and fail to see that it will grow into a storm later.

The ‘no’ you need to tell to others

As a business leader, you must say no to interruptions, distractions and people wanting to have a bit of your time. Otherwise, you are missing ‘deep thought’ time to make the strategic decisions only you can make for the business. That is your primary role if you are CEO or owner who is active in the day-to-day of the business.

Establishing boundaries is vital for managing expectations and maintaining a healthy work-life balance, which needs to be addressed at the executive level. By saying ‘no’ to excessive meetings or after-hours work, CEOs demonstrate respect for personal boundaries, setting a positive precedent within the organization.

One of our clients had regular meetings with 30 people, of which only three spoke. The CEO/owner wasted a third of his time on this nonsense. Another one of our clients had six-hour meetings that were scheduled for two. Discipline and focus are the hallmarks of great executives. If your people slack off, you should remove the stick and remind everyone of these two.

The ‘no’ to create a culture of accountability

When leaders are discerning and say ‘no’ to unrealistic goals or timelines, it fosters a culture where realistic expectations and accountability thrive. For example, a CEO might say no to an aggressive launch timeline, advocating for a more thorough testing phase to ensure product quality.

Saying ‘no’ is also integral to risk management, helping avoid potential pitfalls. For instance, a CEO might say no to entering a high-risk market or undertaking a project with dubious legal implications, safeguarding the company’s reputation and financial health.

Empowering others: Sometimes, saying ‘no’ is about delegating and trusting the team. CEOs empower their teams by declining to micromanage or take on tasks that others can handle, and by fostering a sense of trust and competence. For example, a CEO might say no to resolving a departmental conflict, entrusting the department head to handle the situation.

The ‘no’ to master innovation

Encouraging innovation is a cornerstone of sustainable business growth and competitive advantage. The strategic use of the word ‘no’ by CEOs and business owners can significantly contribute to fostering an innovative culture. Let’s take a deeper dive into this aspect:

1. Discontinuing outdated practices:

By saying ‘no’ to continuing outdated practices or systems, leaders create an urgency and a space for finding better, more modern solutions. For instance, a CEO might reject continuing a legacy IT system, pushing the organization toward adopting more advanced, efficient cloud solutions.

2. Avoiding overcommitment:

Overcommitment to numerous projects often dilutes the focus and resources necessary for innovation. By saying ‘no’ to less critical projects, leaders can channel more resources and attention to innovative ventures —for example, declining projects with low return on investment can free up resources for research and development.

3. Challenging status quo:

Sometimes, innovation requires challenging the existing norms and procedures. CEOs encourage a culture of questioning and improvement by saying ‘no’ to the status quo. This could mean saying ‘no’ to a long-standing but inefficient process, prompting a quest for more efficient methods.

4. Feedback and critique:

Saying ‘no’ to a culture of yes-men and encouraging open feedback and critique create a platform for continuous improvement and innovation. For instance, a CEO might promote an environment where team members feel comfortable challenging existing practices and proposing innovative solutions without fear of retribution.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.

5. Learning from failure:

By saying ‘no’ to a fear of failure and fostering a learning culture, CEOs help build resilience and instill willingness to explore uncharted territories, which are essential for innovation. INQ

Tom Oliver, a “global management guru” (Bloomberg), is the chair of The Tom Oliver Group, the trusted advisor and counselor to many of the world’s most influential family businesses, medium-sized enterprises, market leaders and global conglomerates. For more information and inquiries: or email [email protected].

© Copyright 1997-2024 | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.