Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Organizational Effectiveness at Segal

Create a “Yes” Filter

Full full looking at stack of papers

Image: Man looking at a stack of papers (via IBM Archives)

A few weeks ago, a local governmental organization asked me to speak at a leadership development event. The topic? “Delivering Compelling Presentations.” The person who made the request is a friend, so I think she assumed I would happily agree. She seemed surprised when I responded, “I’m not the right person.”

As she pressed me to reconsider, I resisted the urge to explain that being capable of designing a good presentation is one thing and wanting to do so is another. Instead, striving (as always) to demonstrate good manners, I explained that I only give talks on three general topics and I invited her to consider whether one of those might fit her program.

Polite. Firm. No openings for argument. It felt good.

Having guardrails for evaluating options and opportunities is relatively new for me. For a long, long time, being asked to speak or partner on projects felt both validating and obligatory. Who was I to turn down a request from someone who needed me? And then there was my fear of retribution and my worry that there would be consequences for declining — a gender-based phenomenon noted recently by fellow Vitae columnist Kristen Ghodsee. For too many years I would hustle to meet external demands without attending to what made sense for me. I found myself exhausted and cranky and realized that being spread too thin wasn’t serving anyone. The work was draining rather than energizing, and I came to resent the people who asked for my time.

Just as I began struggling with how to handle these unwanted requests, I started observing people who seemed to be doing better than me both professionally and personally. They appeared happier, lighter, and more optimistic. And I noticed they all had something in common: They said no a lot.

I wondered if I should adopt the same approach. Would being more judicious with my time — and less likely to accept requests — make me a more serene person? I wrestled with that question, because saying no seemed mean and ugly, while saying yes seemed gracious and generous. What to do?

Looking for answers, I turned to the concept of personal branding, where I read that it was important to create a distinctive professional image. Perhaps I might benefit from establishing an unusual professional niche? Maybe that would also give me more time for my personal life. However, the research on specialization is not promising. Yes, your productivity goes up, but your visibility goes down. Highly specialized individuals may also suffer when it comes to job offers. The advice in this area is fraught with contradiction. Clearly, it makes sense to have a professional focus, but apparently being too focused can be worse than no focus at all.

Eventually I came up with my own formula for filtering requests. Rather than say no, I allow myself to say yes when certain conditions are met. Nowadays I accept a request when:

  • It is relatively easy to fulfill.
  • It seems appropriately novel, fun, or energizing.
  • It gives me an opportunity to highlight my strengths and professional expertise.
  • Meeting the request would not significantly detract from other existing priorities.
  • Doing so would fill a reservoir of goodwill I might need to draw upon later.
  • It would expose me to new people who might be interesting or helpful.
  • Tackling the challenge would enable me to learn something I had wanted to learn anyway.
  • The recipients are likely to appreciate my time and effort.

How about you? How do you decide when to say yes to opportunities that come your way? And how do you go about saying no?

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