Consulting and Leadership: Saying Yes, Saying No, and Saying Yes

I’ve been involved with countless projects over the years — some my own, and some initiated by other people. I just can’t help myself, especially when I get inspired with an idea that hits me in the middle of the night or when a colleague reaches out to me with a concept they’d love to realize — one that seems ripe for my help or involvement.

Even in the beginning of my working life, I’ve had side businesses, and that’s where I’ve been able to receive the most fulfillment. If you know the story of Consumerism Commentary, you know that after a while my side businesses became a path-shifting, life-changing experience. But I started off like other tech geeks, designing and maintaining websites for private clients, even while I was holding down jobs that required much more than forty hours a week of work.

During that initial period of working for clients, I can’t recall one time I did not decline a potential client’s project. Now, I may not have had many clients, but I had enough to keep my relatively busy in addition to my own projects — all of which I worked on for no compensation, counting on just the clients’ gigs (and my day job) for income. I needed as much income as I could get, so I said yes.

Every. Single. Time.

I was in the first stage of consulting — saying yes as much as possible, getting as much work as possible, making as much money as possible, even to the point that it actually depleted me of my availability and ability to do much else. But I needed the money, so I kept saying yes.

The first stage of consulting (or any kind of working where you make the decisions about which projects to undertake) is saying yes to as much as possible.

via Flickr

via Flickr

Any self-proclaimed “business coach” will tell you there’s a problem with that philosophy, at least for the long term. You can’t say yes to everything.

  • If you’re good (and good at marketing yourself), you’ll just agree to too much work that you can handle.
  • You spread yourself thin so you can’t devote your full attention to the best projects.
  • You are forced to prioritize by level of income or level of urgency instead of by importance.

By saying no to a good portion of requests, you are able to take on fewer clients, decrease the supply (of your availability for new clients) while managing the demand for your work, and maximize your income — or at least your income-to-stress ratio.

Business coaches advise entrepreneurs to think about the value of their time and to market themselves as if they were hot commodities. This is how you get people who have no business offering advice selling an hour on the phone for $1,000. Hey, if people are willing to pay that to talk to you, that’s great. And if you have so many potential clients that you are filling up the time you truly wish to devote to $1,000 phone calls, more power to you.

The truth is that the “my time is worth $x” declaration is often completely arbitrary. The market for any one person’s service as a consultant of any type is not big enough for the laws of supply and demand have an effect. Usually, when it comes to valuing their time and pricing their services, consultants look at what their colleagues and competitors charge for similar work and make judgments, then adjust as necessary. Maybe they arrive at a figure after some scientific calculations, through some observations after trial and error, or out of thin air. Regardless, that doesn’t mean that once that figure has made itself clear, every hour of one’s day is worth the same.

The “my time is money” attitude conflicts with the philosophy necessary to be a leader. Maybe you don’t want to be a leader: you just want to do your work for your client, collect some fees, and retire without having made a significant impact on or in your field. But I’d rather be a leader.

The second stage of consulting is saying yes to as little as possible.

If you’ve already carved yourself a niche in the market, you have the flexibility to be more discerning about the projects you undertake. But having to turn down colleagues and promising clients isn’t right, either.

It didn’t take long for me to vacate this second stage of consulting. It never felt right to me. It never felt honest. My time could be worth $1,000 an hour to some clients, $100 an hour to others, or $0 an hour for other projects I’d be interested in being involved with.

Do leaders fetch the iced tea?

Leadership is serving others. I fondly remember one moment when I was a junior staff member at a leadership camp for high school students, led by the foremost authority on the subject. I and a few other junior staff members were standing in the back of the room, listening to the world-renowned speaker talk about getting things done as a leader — serving the larger goal and not asking “how high?” when someone says, “jump,” but already knowing how high or figuring it out. It was so many years ago, I don’t remember the exact words in the lesson, but that was the gist of it.

He was in the middle of his energetic talk and stopped to address the staff members in the back — “Could someone bring me an iced tea? My throat is really dry.” We burst into action, scouring the campus for some source of iced tea. We split up. We checked every vending machine. We ran to a local convenience store when it was clear there were no other options. We burst into the room where he was giving his presentation a few minutes later with a Styrofoam cup with iced tea from a fountain at the convenience store. We had no idea we were going to be manipulated into proving his point, but happy to comply.

Unfortunately, most of the business advice I read and hear from business coaches is the opposite. After all, how does fetching iced tea, whether to prove a point, benefit the fetcher? At some point, you have to say no to fetching iced tea and charging a high price for that service when you say yes, right?

The shift in philosophy to the third stage is more than just having different fees depending on the client, project, work, or environment. If you truly believe that the work you do is important and helpful to others, you’re not going to want to say no as much as you do in the second stage. And when you’re seen as focusing on maximizing the revenue from every hour of every day, your attitude will backfire in the long run.

At absolute best, being too discerning about your clients and how much money you can earn from them will paint you as a good businessperson. It will never make you a leader in your industry.

The third stage of consulting is saying yes to as much as possible.

I can see the “business coaches” getting their flamethrowers ready.

Yes. Leaders say yes. Period.

Well, not to every single request, obviously, but to just about everything somewhat reasonable. And then they figure it out. They determine what it is they need to do to make the project work. They can prevent clients from taking advantage of them, but if they assist in any way, and if it’s a good fit, they’ll make it work.

I should point out that not every good business coach advocates a completely negative attitude when they advise saying no. You can say no to projects that aren’t related to your goals or those that don’t make a positive difference in the world or someone’s life. You can say no to projects if you are truly out of time (but most people who say they have no time are flat-out lying — to potential partners, definitely; to themselves, perhaps).

Today, my personal approach is to say yes as much as possible. I’ve agreed to speak and teach at conferences — requiring preparation at which I don’t excel — and will keep saying yes, regardless of the appearance fee or lack of it. I’ve agreed to volunteer for organizations about which I’m passionate. I’ve agreed to consult for clients at rates well under what the market could bear, and to base my fees on their budgets rather than an inflated sense of self-worth (hah!). I’ve even agreed to advise colleagues for free. And certainly, if there’s a project that benefits my community at large, I jump in without any concern to compensation. And I’ve always done that, even when my personal financial situation was dire.

Are you afraid that your time and effort won’t be valued by potential clients if you are seen as someone who’s willing to help? Forget about that. That isn’t a concern, because that’s not what happens. I wouldn’t advise announcing your availability. You don’t have to advertise the fact that you’re so willing to be a resource for people. Your public-facing “brand” can still advertise your $1,000 fee for an hour of your time if you wish, but that shouldn’t prevent or preclude you from focusing on more than just yourself or from taking on projects that benefit more than just your wallet.

I’m the first to admit I haven’t mastered this yet, and there have been times I get in over my head due to my inclination to say yes. And I’m working on organizing my life better and recruiting help when needed. But the philosophy that has been shown to grow leaders is to say yes, figure out how to get it done, and then get it done. Forget your concern with unimportant details like whether you’re maximizing your income for the hours you’ll be involved with the project. If I hear another “what’s in it for me?” from someone who wants to be considered a leader, I’ll — well, I probably won’t do anything other than quietly move on.

You want to know “what’s in it for me?”

There’s no such thing as a natural leader. Anyone can be a leader, but the path is made much easier by doing things for other people. Recognize there’s a larger industry — and a world — outside of yourself and get involved with it. And when you do this successfully, you don’t have to ask “what’s in it for me,” because it will become clear the more you put aside greed and self-importance.

Working within this third stage doesn’t mean you say yes to everything. It’s a shift in philosophy from internal to external. I fully recognize that it is easier to think about how you can give back to the world when you aren’t concerned about putting food on the table. And that’s the same reason I hate the concept of unpaid internships, and how businesses and industries expect people to work for free to get a foot in the door. No one should have to work for free.

In a later stage in life or a career, however, when you can choose the projects you work on, the choices you have are different. You can say no to projects that aren’t the best fit or that require an amount of work that isn’t congruent with your other responsibilities. The philosophical difference comes from being more willing to be involved, more willing to help, and more willing to consider projects that don’t immediately benefit your financial bottom line. Over time, they certainly contribute to your financial increase, but that will remain a secondary concern.

Most leaders already know this. It’s evident through my conversations with a wide variety of people. Those who have time and again shown themselves to be leaders in their industry always pick up the phone, help brainstorm, or agree to partner on a project. Those who are new to success, are more interested in presenting a façade, or fear any budge in their quest to maximize the revenue-generating ability of every hour is a chink in their personal identity armor, will be concerned only with themselves, and like the hero who falls to hubris, they will eventually be undone.

Thanks to the well-meaning but oft misinterpreted advice from business coaches to “say no,” there seems to be an increase of the latter — which in a way, helps to make the former more outstanding.

About Luke Landes

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary, the premier personal finance blog, and has been building online communities since 1990. Luke has contributed to PC World Magazine, US News, Forbes, and other publications, and appears on radio and television to discuss personal finance issues.