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Just say “NO.” How to build your business by bowing out gracefully.

Saying no is one of the most difficult, yet liberating things any business owner can do. You might want to practice at home, with your kids.

The most effective managers and executives say no a lot. For instance, they politely decline to pursue business that doesn’t fit their strategic objectives. They say no to employees who try to hijack their time. They don’t tolerate overblown financial projections and long, drawn-out presentations. They say no to new initiatives that doesn’t fit the brand personality or the corporate culture.

They even say no to their bosses and to their best clients sometimes.

The typical small business owner on the other hand, says yes, yes, yes to anything that comes along. In an effort to grow the business they make a habit of appeasing people.

Just say no to being a yes-man.

“Sure, we can do that.” Yes, we can do that too.” I admit, I’m guilty of that. In professional service firms, it’s a common problem, because after all, it IS a service.

Unfortunately, this overly agreeable approach is often symptomatic of two glaring managerial shortcomings: A lack of courage, little or no strategic thinking and a brand that’s not very focused.

Strategy is all about choosing a specialty, setting goals, and turning away business that doesn’t fit with your core brand values. The clarity that comes from a well-defined, well written brand strategy makes it much easier to say no when the time comes.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 the company was, in his own words, “in deep shit.” They had at least 13 new initiatives and product ideas but no direction. No strategic focus. No “gravitational pull,” as he put it.

Jobs killed all but two of the initiatives. One was the iMac and the other was the G4.

By saying no, he set the company in a specific, definable direction that’s still paying off today.

“Companies sometimes forget who they are.” Jobs once said. “Fortunately, we woke up. And now we’re on a really good track. It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.” *

Best-selling author Ken Blanchard, (The One-Minute Manager, Gung Ho) says without clear goals you will quickly be a victim of too many commitments. “You will have no framework in which to make decisions about where you should or shouldn’t focus your energy.”

Peter Drucker believes the only people who truly get anything done are monomaniacs – people who are intensely focused on one thing at a time. “The more you take on, the greater chance you will lose effectiveness in all aspects of your life.”

So I guess modern day multi-tasking isn’t the shortest route to success.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “A ‘no’ uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.”

As a Creative Director I say no a lot. Clients often make impossible requests at the 11th hour or float their own “creative” ideas in early strategy meetings. Sometimes, I swear, they’re just trying to get a rise outta me.

Here are some good things that come from saying no:

• You have more opportunities to say yes to the right customers.

• You have more time to focus on more important tasks, like long-term planning, strategic thinking and branding.

• Your operation will become more streamlined and efficient.

• You’ll have a better sense of balance in life — between work, home and play.

• Saying “no” expresses how you really feel. You’re not hiding anything, and you’re taking responsibility for your own feelings.

• Saying no actually increases your value in the market niche you’ve choosen.

At BNBranding one of the goals of our new business development effort is to say no more often. And not just to accounts that are too small, but also to businesses owners, marketing managers and entrepreneurs who might pay well, but don’t share our core values.

As the old saying goes, “values mean nothing in business until they cost you money.”

Fast Company magazine recently ran a great article about Jim Wier, the CEO who said no to Walmart. Wier gave up tens of millions of dollars in annual sales with one visit to Arkansas. But he was adamant that selling Snapper mowers through Walmart stores was incompatible with their strategy and their brand.

Now that’s courage. And focus.

Most large companies with a well-respected brand like Snapper would be tempted to launch a line extension strategy to accommodate Walmart. Just produce a cheaper mower oversees and slap the Snapper name on it. But Wier knew that would just dilute the brand and confuse people.

Like when Subway recently announced they’d be test marketing pizzas. How does that fit with their “eat fresh” healthy fast food strategy? Can you see Jared, the Subway spokesperson, losing 60 pounds while eating pizza? I don’t think so.

Someone should have stepped up and said no to that idea.

* The Steve Jobs story is from “The Perfect Pitcth” by Jon Steele.