Fortune 500 CMO: The Best Way to Say No

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The Fortune 500 Insiders Network is an online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Beth Brady, CMO of Principal Financial, has answered the question: At work, what’s the right way to say no?

Here is the scenario: My team comes into my office ready to present a new idea or concept. They have spent hours researching how to make it work, pulling together the necessary facts and figures. They are confident they have a winning solution. But from my seat, I know it’s a no-go. It may be because we don’t have the time, money, or resources, perhaps the idea will trigger unintended negative consequences, or maybe I simply disagree with the course of action because I know it’s not the right choice for the organization. They are looking to me for my reaction, so the next words I speak are critical.

Saying “no” isn’t easy, and if handled poorly, it can be extremely demotivating and disheartening. But being able to say “no” at the right time and in the right way is what separates good leaders from great leaders. A proper “no” can set the course for how people will respect and trust you going forward.

I have had to say no many times, and not always with the best results. But over the years, I’ve learned ways to say “no” to ideas while still affirming the people involved. Here are my best tips on how to effectively deliver a “no” while leaving people inspired and energized:

  1. Be a listener

There is nothing worse than being told “no” before you have had the chance to state your case. As a leader, your “no” has greater credibility if you have really listened to the rationale behind ideas. Ask questions to make sure you fully understand the concept. It shows you respect the thinking and work that has gone into the proposal.

It’s tempting to say “no” quickly when you are busy or having a bad day. But it’s worth the extra time. There is nothing more validating and gratifying than being heard. You may be saying “no” to the idea, but the time spent listening affirms the efforts of the person or people behind the idea.

  1. Say “no” with a comma—not a period

It’s “no” with a comma: no for these reasons, but here are elements that are worth exploring. Always say “no, and…” Adding “and” allows you to expand on your thoughts and doesn’t put someone in a defensive mode: “No, and here is what I really liked about your idea,” or, “No, and here are a few things in the future we could execute quickly to help save our consumer time.” You might be on the fence, and in that case, it’s best to say, “Let me sleep on it.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with giving yourself a bit of time to process before saying no (or yes).


Something else to keep in mind: An idea or project rarely comes to you ready to roll out. It is important to quickly assess if there is something that can be modified to change a “no” to a “yes.”

  1. Explain priorities

Priorities are a must—for every company and every employee. They help you manage your day and provide structure to decisions. If you have to tell a team “no,” make sure they understand why the proposal doesn’t fit into current priorities. I have found that when I provide perspective that the team can relate to, it makes it a much easier pill to swallow.

  1. Follow up quickly

After every “no,” follow-up communication is a must. I encourage a personal, face-to-face meeting, but when that isn’t possible, a phone call or email will do the trick. It reinforces that while you had to say no, you are still thinking about the discussion, and shows you care about the person and the ideas he or she has. This will go a very long way.

I believe that if you try to be everything to everyone, you become nothing to anyone. Leaders must have the discipline to say “no,” and when you do, it will make you a better leader, and ultimately a better organization because of it.


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