Steve Cox, my dad, is a bit of a badass. He came from the humblest of beginnings, left school with few qualifications, and had two kids plus a divorce before he turned 20. Men like my Steve Cox rarely prospered.
And yet, he married my fabulous mum, got his masters, started running ruddy ultra marathons, and is now big man ting at Oracle. Ok, technically I don’t really know what his job is – but he has so many acronyms in his job title it must be damn important.
My dad taught me many things about business, but today I’m focusing on just one: the person with power, is the person who says “no”.
Now, this is my take on Dad’s philosophy, and all the times saying “no” helped or could have helped me be better at business, sooner.
Start saying “no” straight away
A massive mistake most people make when starting a ‘proper’ career is to say “yes” too much. As a graduate, and then when I made the leap into marketing, I took on too much.
I was so desperate to impress, desperate to make my mark, desperate to learn and desperate to prove to myself that I could do anything.
Luckily, I can’t remember failing at any specific task – but there was one thing I didn’t get that would have helped more than anything: respect.
Now I’m not saying that newbie grads should start refusing to empty bins or do the coffee run. These menial-seeming tasks, especially when completed unprompted, can really show care, attention to detail and enthusiasm.
I’m saying that if you see something wrong, or something that could be done better – speak up. Be respectful, and say “I disagree, and here’s why”.
You might not convince your peer, but at the very least you’ll show confidence and good ol’ gumption. Now that’s a whole lot more memorable that the yes-man.
Say “no” because you’re right
I’ve battled with this point for as long as I can remember. When did it stop being ok to be correct? Why should we be ashamed of being right?
I’m not sure if I’ve been exposed to this more in my career because I am vocal young woman. Thinking back it’s probably the most absurd and yet ridiculously common situation.
I’m ok with being bossy
In the gap between university and starting a career in marketing, I was a manager in a shop at the shoe retailer, Schuh. I cannot sing the praises of this business enough. Their company philosophy, professional development opportunities and brand culture are some of the best I’ve ever experienced.
I was completing a group task on one of the training days, and at the end of the session, my store manager who happened to be supervising pulled me up as some of my team members had called me “bossy”.
Ok, maybe I could have been a little more tactful in the way I communicated. My team were completely missing the point of the task, and I successfully brought us back on track. In the end, we outshone the other groups and I’m not sorry.
Luckily, my store manager and our regional manager were both a absolute legends, and had my back.
So I’m ok with being bossy because if that’s what it takes to make great work, it’s worth it.
Manipulation and ego stroking is bad for business
In a job at a previous marketing agency, I picked up some pretty awful habits. The place had a weird culture which basically involved avoiding confrontation, no matter how small or necessary.
I’m a massive proponent of respectful debate, and believe that when people can discuss an idea or problem with enthusiasm and justification – the quality and creativity of the output increases.
Unfortunately my managers didn’t quite agree. At all.
Instead, we were persuaded to take a more manipulative approach to get the outcome we wanted. This helped nobody. Those doing the work were able to continually miss briefs, quality fell and mistakes increased.
The onus of all of this fell on the client managers, the same group who had lost all respect from their peers as they were seen to be manipulative middlemen.
What’s more, nobody felt comfortable to bring up issues or challenge current processes as they’d be seen as a trouble-maker. This is a great way to not only lower company morale, but to put-off the most passionate and talented who are looking for challenge and innovation.
Sometimes the status quo is wrong
Unsurprisingly, this same agency also struggled with client confrontation. And it almost backfired in what could have been a catastrophic manner.
One of clients had recently replaced their marketing manager (MM). The new MM was incredibly competent and had understandably high expectations, and so far meetings had not gone particularly well. Not badly, we just weren’t impressing.
The MM had sent us a few kinda bad briefs, nothing major, and we’d delivered kinda bad work on each one. One evening. the MM called and asked about the results on the kinda bad work, and what I thought of the current brief.
So I told her. I explained why certain things weren’t working, and discussed the things we’d done in the past that did work. We even got on to long-term plans for how we both thought the marketing efforts could be improved.
One conversation became a turning point in both the client-supplier relationship, and in my career. By effectively saying “no” to a bad brief, and saying “I disagree, and here’s why”, I immediately won the respect of the MM. This opened up new opportunities for collaboration and ultimately profit on both sides.
Not bad for a pair of trouble makers.
Say “no” when you’re not convinced
Teamwork can be tough. As a business owner and leader, whose success relies on the performance of others, there is a balance to be met between encouraging creative input and delivering a specific output.
I actively encourage collaborators to challenge a brief and deliver something outside of expectations. This can drive new creative avenues and raises morale through independent development.
However, I need to be convinced that this off-brief solution is what my client needs. After all, I’m the one selling it. If you can’t sell your idea to me, then I sure as heck can’t sell it to someone else.
So I say “no”, but come back when you can justify why I need to fall in love with your vision.
Say “no” to protect yourself
If you say “no” to doing something, and you don’t do it, it is not your fault when it isn’t done.
On a more serious note,I’m pretty open about my mental health issues. I’ve dealt with depression since my teens, with a handful of delves into anxiety, an eating disorder and stress over the past 15 years.
It’s crap, but I manage. Some days I don’t, but hey-ho, a good day should just be around the corner.
As I get older, I’ve become better at balancing my work with my health. I know if I take on too much or the wrong type of work, it can trigger a depressive episode or worse.
So I need to be wise now, and turn down jobs to make sure I am as healthy and happy as I can be.
Say “no” as you just don’t want to say “yes”
What’s the point is working for yourself, if you’re not doing what you want to do? I was self-employed for a year before working this out and my gosh what an epiphany it has been.
We need to make ends meet, so yes, we’ll often do work that doesn’t inspire enthusiasm. But when we can afford it, saying “no” is so damn empowering.
We know we can put happiness and passion first, and if that’s not the dream then I don’t know what is.
Say “yes please”
Sorry Dad, but I need a little Amy Poehler in my life too. Poehler is one of my favourite comediennes, as her autobiography Yes Please is full of amazing stories of what can happen when you say “yes”.
I said yes to moving to London at 22 without any money and hardly any friends. I said yes to moving in with my husband after 2 weeks of dating. I said yes to starting my own business. Saying “yes” can be pretty damn awesome.
But if you want respect, power and success – you need to follow Steve Cox’s lead and say “no” too.