Kate Spade CMO: The Right Way to Say No

June 5, 2016, 2:00 PM UTC
Businesswoman using laptop at desk in office
Businesswoman using laptop at desk in office
Photograph by Shestock — Blend Images RM via Getty Images

The MPW Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: At work, what’s the right way to say no? is written by Mary Beech, CMO of Kate Spade & Company.

We are never at a loss for ideas at Kate Spade New York (KATE). And the flow of ideas is far less like a trickle and far more like a fire hose at full stream. This environment creates a culture of innovation, empowerment, independence, and intrepreneurism—all great things, and many of the reasons I love coming to work every day. Yet, without the lens of prioritization and the ability to say “no,” a pure culture of ideation has a definite downside: It can lead to a demand on resources, both human and financial, that outweighs the return on investment and ignores what’s best for the customer, brand, and business. And, it doesn’t provide that moment of pause—no matter how brief—that allows you to discuss and debate the larger implications and opportunities that relate to the various initiatives.

It is important to remember that saying no often means simply saying, “Not now,” not, “Not ever.” That distinction is critical, and frequently lost in the flow of communication. Whether you are managing up, down, or across your organization, being clear that something is a “not now”—and providing the timing for when that project can be tackled later on—avoids killing great ideas (and the spirits of the people who generate them).

See also: How Saying ‘No’ Can Actually Motivate Your Team

Though it’s a business euphemism that is often overused, creating a “parking lot” of ideas that can’t be tackled at the moment—and then re-visiting those ideas once a quarter—can be highly productive. While you may find upon a quarterly review that your priorities have changed and certain ideas are no longer viable, often new insights, opportunities, or even technologies have entered the picture that allow an idea to be taken to action in an even better form.


Sometimes you’ll find yourself in a culture or a situation where “no” simply isn’t allowed, possible, or acceptable. That’s when I fall back on the tools I learned in a classic improvisation exercise called “Yes, And.” In the ”Yes, And” exercise, you, as an actor, can’t say “no” to the person you are playing with, regardless of what your fellow actor says in the scene prior. It’s improv, so it often has funny results, but the true goal is to teach actors to embrace the ideas of their fellow performers, to demonstrate that you can constantly affirm the ideas of another person while still having a constructive discussion, and in the end, ensure that the scene doesn’t die through a firm “no” or a weak “yes.”

Applied to a business setting, “Yes, And” allows you to truly hear the argument and concerns of the person making the ask, and avoid a “no,” all while still explaining the downsides of the ask and making your point of view known. Rather than quickly ending the conversation, “Yes, And” almost always leads to a healthy debate, helps both parties feel heard and understood, and more often than not, ends in the best place for the brand or the business.