Prioritizing your priorities: When to say “no”

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By Dan Wyant

It’s easy for entrepreneurs to burn out during second stage. Not only are they running a growing business, but their leadership success pushes them into the limelight, and suddenly they’re flooded with requests to join industry boards, community initiatives and charitable endeavors.

I recently discussed this issue with Bonnie Alfonso, founder of Alfie Logo Gear, a Traverse City-based company with national distribution and more than 24 employees. No stranger to saying “yes,” Bonnie found herself overwhelmed with extracurricular responsibilities a few years ago — and began resenting her involvement. In response, she developed an evaluation system for taking on new initiatives, which revolves around three simple questions.

1. Why me?

“This isn’t about fishing for compliments,” Bonnie explains, “but rather about clarifying what skills or assets someone thinks I possess. For example, people might assume from our company’s growth that I’m really good at finance. Yet if that’s what they’re expecting me to bring to the table, they should find someone else. Finance isn’t my strong suit, and I have specialists who help me with this.”

It’s also important to determine how a new commitment would fit in with those you’ve already made, she adds: “An organization may ask you to serve because it wants to tap your network for a fundraising project. And if you’re already on the fundraising committees of other organizations, it may not be the best time to take on one more. Otherwise, when friends or people in your network see you coming, they’re going to hold onto their wallets and start running.”

2. Will this help me grow?

Bonnie Alfonso of Alfie Logo Gear

Bonnie’s second criterion revolves around determining if the commitment provides opportunities for personal, professional or business growth. Although this might sound self-serving, it ultimately leads to better choices. For one thing, the question presumes a level of humility. “If you think you’re the smartest person in the room, then you shouldn’t be there because your ego just took over and will affect how you approach the situation,” Bonnie explains.

Even though your reasons for serving may be primarily altruistic, there should still be some give-and-take, Bonnie believes: “Perhaps there are people in the room you’ve always wanted to meet, and this is a great way to connect and find out what’s made them successful. It’s a balance between making sure you have something valuable to offer — and being able to appreciate the value within the room as well.”

3. Do I care about the mission?

Bonnie’s third question is pretty straightforward. She asks herself if the organization’s mission inspires action for her. (This particularly resonates with me as I have a bad habit of saying “yes” to everything, and then later I find out I may not be as interested as I had hoped. With passion comes engagement.)

In addition to these three questions, Bonnie also asks about the scope and duration of the commitment. Is it a short-term engagement where there’s a start and finish — or something that involves long, frequent meetings and no end in sight?

When it comes to scoring, if answers to Bonnie’s questions are all positive, she’s ready to sign on. Two out of three positive responses indicate a “maybe,” and one out of three results in a “thank you, but no,” she says. “I may care about the organization’s mission, but if I’m not the right person to serve or don’t see how growth is going to happen, then it’s better for me to write a check than donate my time and energy.”

In addition to improved decision-marking, Bonnie says the system also helps her explain why she’s accepting or declining. (This also resonated with me. It’s always hard to say “no” or have a difficult conversation. Yet in my experience, people always respond better if you give a clear, transparent reason for a decision — even if they don’t like what you have to say.)

Bottom line, Bonnie’s system makes it much easier to know what’s a good fit and whether she’ll be truly engaged. “Every organization wants you to be fully committed,” Bonnie explains. “And even if there might be disappointment, if your answer is a gracious ‘no,’ in the long run they’ll be grateful that it freed up an opportunity for someone who has the passion and the drive. Being able to give an enthusiastic ‘yes,’ rather than a ‘yeah, I guess I’ll do it’ helps everyone.”

“Time is one of our most valuable commodities and also most limited resources,” she adds. “So, determining how you want to invest your time is critical for happiness and success.”

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Dan Wyant
President of Edward Lowe Foundation
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“To me, leadership is about building a team, trying to get the best out of others, and helping them be successful,” says Dan Wyant, president and chief operating officer of the Edward Lowe Foundation.

“If done right, the impact should be lasting.” In this series of articles, Wyant shares insights about leadership gleaned from more than three decades of managing entrepreneurial and conservation organizations in the private, public and nonprofit sectors.