Push Back, Baby: Saying “No” is a critical skill for creative leaders

In this current business climate, where patience is a rare commodity, creative teams are increasingly being asked to accommodate unrealistically tight schedules and juggle an increasing workload across different media while working with fewer resources and lower budgets than ever before. And with the creative workload rarely being transparent to clients (and sometimes to other departments/teams), these requests or needs are given within a subjective “I need this now” or “this is important to me (or my division)” mindset. Clients and/or the requestors don’t usually consider other business critical factors including how important or impactful is the request to the company’s/brand’s/product’s overall strategies and vision and how important is it when compared to other projects in the pipeline. Essentially, creative teams are constantly putting out fires and as a result, their other priorities and well-laid plans get pushed aside and precious time and resources are often mismanaged or even wasted.

Given these circumstances, as a group leader, pushing back and selectively saying “No” is a critical skill in your arsenal of management tools. After all, your time is limited and there are only so many hours you and your team can work without sacrificing your and their sanity, the quality of work, the company/product/brand vision, and the morale of the team. When you close one door (your “No”), other doors will open for you and your team (your “Yes”). With a “no”, you will be able to say yes to improved staff morale and a more efficient and productive use of your team’s limited time and resources thus improving the quality, impact and effectiveness of your group’s services and creative deliverables.

Yet effectively pushing back (your “No”) and having difficult conversations are critical skills that many creatives lack (you love being the nice guy and are notorious conflict-avoiders). You also tend to fear the “what ifs”? – What if they hate me? What if they fire me? What if they hire an outside agency instead? These fears all can hold us back from appropriately saying “no”.

What can we do to say “no” without fear?

When evaluating when to say “no”, remind yourself of why you need to say it and weigh the benefits and positive outcomes of it against the potential negative impacts of not saying “no.” Will your internal clients continue to take advantage of you? Will the quality or effectiveness of the work be lowered? Will you be treated as a transactional “short-order cook” by the company or client rather than as a strategic partner? Will your staff turnover increase because of decreased morale? Will the madness never end?

To mitigate the fear of “what ifs” and feel more confident pushing back, you should also consider how far you are willing to go if you don’t get what you want. Will you need to seek the support of others and involve third parties? Can you do it yourself? Are you willing to quit your job or fire an employee? This is your plan B. Your plan B is a worst-case scenario that is within your control. It is an alternative that you shouldn’t bring up initially or ever use as threat. In truth, the worst-case scenario often isn’t as bad as you think. Challenging situations and disagreements rarely get to that point or are truly that dire. But your plan B is there to give you the personal strength, power, and confidence to say “no”. It may never need to be directly mentioned, but it’s there to keep you grounded and can be employed when needed to properly counter the other person’s power.

Use Your “No” Well

One huge caveat – the power of “no” can quickly be undermined if you either use it too often or you don’t stay on course and stick with your “no.” Your “no” must really mean “no” – it’s that simple. Use that all-powerful word selectively and appropriately and be ready to stand by your plan B should you need it. Be consistent, persistent, unwavering, and firm while still retaining your patience and compassion (but be careful not use compassion as an excuse to back down from your “no”). Also be careful to reserve your “no” for the problem or situation – not the person. It’s imperative, specifically during potentially difficult conversations, to distinguish the person from the issue at hand.

I promise that you’ll see the positive impact of your “no” quicker than you think and you will over time become more comfortable with pushing back. Just ask Jim Wier, the former CEO of lawn-equipment maker Snapper, who famously and successfully said “no” to Walmart.*

*https://www.fastcompany.com/54763/man-who-said-no-wal-mart

Emily will be elaborating on this critical topic in her session at the upcoming Cella Beyond the Creative 5 event being held in Atlanta, October 25-26. We’d love for you, or one of your colleagues, to join us. Learn more about our program and register here.

A brutally honest consultant, Emily Cohen has worked with leading creative teams and firms helping them improve their operational effectiveness and build efficient teams and processes. She conducts strategic business planning retreats and provides confidential, best-practice insights and advice on staff, client, and process-management strategies. She served as Secretary for the AIGA/NY Board of Directors and is a frequently-requested speaker on business-related issues for the creative industry and has spoken at numerous conferences and events sponsored by AIGA, HOW, Design Business Association in London (DBA), The Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario (RGD) and Design Management Institute (DMI). She also currently teaches professional practices to BFA design students at Tyler School of Art.

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