Survival Training For IT Leaders: The Art Of Saying 'No' | Straight Talk

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This article is by Featured Blogger Mark Settle from his blog Mark Settle. Republished with the author’s permission.

IT leaders say "no" frequently. They say "no" to business partners, vendors and, occasionally, even their teammates. Most of the time, it’s for good reason. They may say "no" because their team simply doesn’t have the time or resources required to satisfy a request. They may say "no" because they’re required to enforce policies established by other groups. Finally, they may say "no" because they realize there isn’t sufficient business justification to satisfy a request, even if the requestor passionately believes it’s essential to the success of the entire company.

Most IT leaders are quite adept at saying "no" but may not be using all the potential strategies at their disposal. For those who want to brush up on their naysaying skills or expand their repertoire of refusal techniques, here’s a definitive list of strategies.

Be Firm And Be Quick

Most people try to avoid confrontation and defer bad news. Consequently, they tend to respond to requests with a "maybe" or "let me look into that" reply. When you know the answer is "no," delaying your response is counterproductive. It raises false hopes that increase the depth of disappointment when your "no" is ultimately delivered. If you truly need to collect additional information, you should clearly state that approval is unlikely and identify a definitive date at which you will confirm your "no" response. If you turn the requestor down in a few days or weeks, they’ve been preconditioned to expect your answer. If you end up turning your initial "no" into a "yes," then you’re a hero!

Explain Why

The most common reasons for rejecting a request are lack of money, skills, time or authority. Avoid telling a requestor that you’re denying a request on the basis of business priorities. No one likes being told that their needs are less important than those of others. Explaining the "no" depersonalizes the rejection: You’re not rejecting the request because it’s unimportant or unnecessary; you’re rejecting it because you have to.

Qualify The 'No'

After you clearly reject a request, inform the requestor that you’re willing to reconsider his or her proposal at a later time. Perhaps you can revisit the proposal after a major project is completed or offer to request the resources needed to pursue the proposal during the next budget cycle. Many of your business partners suffer from attention deficit disorder and are likely to forget their requests after a few months, so in most instances, these qualifying statements won’t come back to bite you.

Replace The Rejection With A Commitment To Do Something Else

If it’s politically incorrect to deliver a definitive "no," commit to an activity that is related to the request that also involves a commitment on the part of the requestor. For example, if your CMO becomes entranced by a new technology, invite them to join you on a trip to Silicon Valley to investigate other companies developing similar capabilities. Suggest that they work with their team to build a business case for the proposed project or procurement. Ask them to present the proposal at an executive staff meeting or operations review. If your CEO, COO or CFO refuses to put the topic on the agenda, then they’re saying "no" instead of you.

Razzle Dazzle Them With The Double 'No'

This is an advanced strategy that requires practice: When a colleague asks you to do something that will make their life easier, say "no" and simply promise that you won’t make their life any worse. For example, if a sales leader complains about having to reset passwords every 60 days, tell them that you cannot extend the reset period to 90 days but that you will stop all current discussions about reducing it to 30 or 45 days.

Remind Them Of Positive Results

This is another advanced strategy: If you’re nearing the end of your conversation with a disappointed requestor, inquire about a recent IT project or policy decision that you know has been successful. If you can end your conversation with the requestor thanking you for something other than the topic they came to discuss, you will have mastered this strategy.

Don’t Make It Personal Or Public

It’s important that the requestor feels that their request has been respectfully considered and rationally rejected. No one likes to have their requests rejected in public. If you’re presented with a request in a large meeting, do your best to table the discussion and suggest a one-on-one conversation instead.

Beat Them To Your Boss

Anyone who has ever parented a teenager knows that they will shop around for request approval -- the classic "Mom said no, let’s call Dad" maneuver. When I was a teen, I would sometimes get my grandmother to approve something and then present her decision to my parents as a fait accompli. (They were never going to take on my grandmother!) Be aware that if a requestor is deeply dissatisfied by your rejection or passionately convinced of the value of their proposal, they may approach your boss or others to obtain the "yes" they’re seeking. Others may not be as adept at saying "no" as you are. Consequently, your colleague should be forewarned that they’ll likely receive the same plea you’ve already rejected. Most will appreciate this warning -- it’s always easier to reinforce someone else’s "no" than delivering one all by yourself.

Saying "no" too many times can create political risks for IT leaders, but experience has shown that overpromising and underdelivering is even more career-limiting. CIOs who earn the nickname "CIO No" should not feel insulted. They should wear that title as a badge of honor. It’s concrete proof that they have mastered the techniques listed above and may indicate that they are ready to take on broader organizational roles -- such as that of a CFO or CEO -- where saying "no" is not only a survival skill but a key to success.