Just Say No

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to join the board of a charitable trust. It was a fascinating opportunity, combining business and culture. The initial e-mail I received was persuasive, challenging and flattering in just the right proportions. I was exactly the person they were looking for. Joining the board would be interesting, rewarding – and above all I’d be helping to create jobs in North Yorkshire.

They were right. I was the right person. It would be both challenging and rewarding. And if you can help to create jobs in the current economic climate then the knighthood is surely in the post.

So I said no.

Politely, but firmly, I declined the offer. I would have really enjoyed being a member of that board. It was flattering to be asked. But I simply had to say ‘no.’

Why? Two reasons.

First of all I’ve been conscious for a while that I’ve been spreading myself too thinly. As the saying goes, ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’ And the main thing for me is running The Alternative Board in York.

There’s another saying, beloved of my accountant friends: ‘Turnover is vanity; profit is sanity.’ And saying ‘yes’ to everything is a lot like that. Too many people think, “I’m busy, I’m a member of this, I’m going to that meeting. Therefore I must be doing well.”

Unfortunately, that’s the ‘turnover’ argument. It’s not the activity that counts – it’s the results you produce. Meetings are vanity; results are sanity.

You simply cannot perform at your best if you’re doing too many things. Yes, it may be flattering if you’re asked to be a school governor. And I genuinely accept that you may well have something valuable to contribute – but there are only so many things you can think about, and right now the current economic climate is giving everyone running a business more than enough to think about.

The second reason I said ‘no’ was simple. I have a family, and I have clients. And if you have either of those, then you’ve a moral obligation to give of your best. You can’t do that if you’re exhausted from too many meetings or you’re worrying about the state of the school roof.

In a previous life a client of mine had a saying: “You want 100% of my money: I want 100% of your attention.” What he meant was that we expected him to pay his invoice in full. Obviously. By the same token he expected calls to be answered promptly, the sales executive (a fresh-faced young lad called Reid) to turn up on time, and for us never to deliver anything less than our very best service.

And I think he had a point.

Clients and customers are entitled to your absolute best. Irrespective of how long you’ve dealt with them and irrespective of how much they’re spending. To use another well-worn cliché: ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough.

So it doesn’t matter how wonderful and talented you are, and how much you could contribute to the world; make 2012 the year when you get into the habit of saying ‘no.’ By all means have outside interests (remember the Effective Networks blog?) but choose them carefully. Good causes are great; but your most important good causes – by a long, long way – are your family and your business.



  1. Douglas Adamson · December 2, 2011

    Ed makes a good point but only up to a point.

    I found that in 2011 that I was spending over one day a week doing ‘good things that I believe in’ for no reward other than an OBE (where is it by the way?). It was having a detrimental effect on my business and I started to say ‘No’.

    However, never say never. We are lucky enough to be in gainful employ, many are not. I believe that SMEs in particular are going to have to engage in more CSR activities in the future to bolster their market credibility as well as demonstrate that they can look over the corporate garden fence and beyond just the bottom line. I have found that giving time and expertise for free often delivers unexpected dividends and it also helps you sleep at night (providing you are not a banker!). So my counsel is don’t say ‘no’ on principle but look at how you or your business (and employees) can contribute. It’s all about balance, if we all said ‘no’ the world is going to be a much more poorer place than it already is.

    • edreidyork · December 3, 2011

      Hi Doug – I love the garden fence analogy, and agree entirely that it’s a question of balance. I think that SMEs do have a moral obligation to play their part in CSR, and that the time is now. As long your effort isn’t diluted by trying too hard…

      Thanks as ever for your comments.

  2. Steven Partridge · December 2, 2011

    An interesting blog, Ed. I’m always acutely aware of the risks of spreading myself too thinly.

    I think it is important to offer to provide help beyond the ‘day job’, but it is important to be choosy to try to make sure that your paid work doesn’t suffer and the voluntary help is of value to the recipient.

  3. Cath Blakey · December 2, 2011

    Its all about balance. Work, family and others – that can included charity work, hobbies etc etc. Ed’s very valid point is, if we are going to do something do it well. If you have time great, if not say no. But rather than help 10 charities and do it OK, help 1 or 2 and do it great!!
    I have family, a business but I still found time to climb the Great Wall of China and raise £10K for YCC, but I do need to learn to say no sometimes (especially those clients that want everything for nothing and demand 100% of my time!!).
    Never say never but give 100% – all the time.

  4. Dave Rawlings · December 2, 2011

    I find it helps to be clear about what you might do and what you’ll never do. For example, I have a couple of charities I donate to regularly and I treat all other requests as junk mail (apart from earthquakes and such).
    As for volunteering – I have a talk entitled “3 lessons life has taught me” and one of them is “Never agree to be the secretary of anything”. Some people love that role and do it really well. I hate it and do it really badly – a genuine lose-lose! So now, if asked to be secretary of any organisation I say, “Sorry, I have a rule never to be secretary of anything”. They then say, “OK, I’ll ask somebody else!” Much better than getting into a debate about how much time it will take because that can only lead to giving in and taking it on.

  5. Siobhan Hymes · December 2, 2011

    I think inevitably when you work for yourself you put in more hours than an “employed” person might BUT you also reap the rewards when the work is constructive towards growing your company. Being entrepreneurial also means that you can easily spot ways that things / organisations could be run better and more efficiently so you are easily suckered into saying “yes”.
    I am a STEM Ambassador because I believe it is important to help young people understand the infinite breadth of work/ jobs out there in the big wide world. But it has also brought me into contact with some new clients.
    However I’m head of my daughters’ school’s PTA because I could see it could be run better and no one else put their hand up! It is a pretty thankless job but one that I do enjoy doing and sometimes I might spread myself thinly but I am doing what I want to do.
    Which again is important and a big factor in why we all work for ourselves.

  6. Jo Clarkson · December 5, 2011

    I think Douggie’s point is really true – if we all said ‘no’ then the world would indeed be a poorer place. I am on the committee of the Firecracker Ball which 3 weeks ago raised £160,000 from the great and the good (and the relatively wealthy!) of Yorkshire to support young carers (some as young as 5!) in our region. Some of us gave our time to make the event happen (the TAB team in Harrogate – thank you to them!) and some gave cash (the people who attended the ball) and between us we have helped make life a bit more bearable for around 1000 children in Yorkshire in 2012. Could I have done without having to rush from work to the meetings….were my family ticked off at me for not being there a few evenings…..was it worth it – absolutely to all 3! But sometimes you just have to say ‘yes’!!! (but not every time, you’re right Ed!)

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