To Climb the Career Ladder, Start Saying No

If you find that you’re going nowhere fast, it might just be your own fault

Joe Procopio
Apr 8 · 7 min read
image by pch.vector

The day I took control of my future was the day I started saying no. I remember it vividly, because it was scary as hell.

I had built a strong consulting practice of my own. It was a good gig, but I had the same problem most solo consultants have: I had one huge client who took up the bulk of my time, and a couple of smaller clients who were way more satisfying to work with. But since all my time was going to the big client, I couldn’t give the smaller clients the focus they needed.

The big client was a total backbreaker — extremely demanding attitude and boring work — but they had a lot of budget and needed a lot of boring work done. They could easily absorb more than 40 hours a week from me and just about anyone I could beg to help out. Soon, I started hiring.

It wasn’t long before everyone on my team was feeling the same pain I had been feeling on my own. We were all at the mercy of the big client, with 40 hours a week routinely turning into 50 hours a week or more. It was a good problem to have, but the work for the smaller, more rewarding clients got squeezed out and started drying up. Then I lost an employee who loved her job, but couldn’t work for the big client anymore. We were becoming a one-customer shop.

So when the big client called me in for a meeting to suggest that everyone on my team be dedicated to them and them alone, I gathered all my courage and told them politely, but definitively, no.

I’ll never forget this. The client dude thought about it for a second, which felt like forever, and then looked back at me and said, “OK. Just thought I’d ask.”

Lesson learned: Saying “no” can be scary, even dangerous, but it isn’t always as difficult as we might fear.

Saying “yes” feels so good, and it’s even better to hear. Saying “yes” to every request very rarely results in confrontation or displeasure, and you can never get fired for doing what you’re asked to do. But flash forward to more recent times, and I’ll tell you another anecdote that involves two people I worked with, neither was an employee or coworker of mine, but they both fell onto my radar.

One of them, whom I’ll call “Sidney,” was the kind of guy who said yes to everything. He was always busy, and visibly so, always just leaving a meeting, always had a hard stop for another thing he had to get to, always clocking in early and leaving late. Sidney was the go-to guy for every important thing his company had going on.

The other, whom I’ll call “Susan,” was quiet, kind of always in the background. But make no mistake, she was incredibly resourceful, a lifesaver. Susan was always early to meetings and always gave you the time you needed. Susan always had answers or knew how to get them.

After working with both of them for a while, I realized that Sidney was never prepared. You could never count on Sidney to have a handle on what he was supposed to be working on, even if you sent him information ahead of time, because he never had the time to absorb the details.

Sidney was about getting things done, which usually meant you had to spend 30–60 minutes getting Sidney up to speed before you could tap Sidney’s expertise, and by then, Sidney usually needed to be moving on to something else, or Sidney was being interrupted by other priorities.

Susan, on other hand, came to the table not only with knowledge, but with initiative. If Susan was working on something, she knew what it was about, who it impacted, why we were doing it, and almost always proactively offered suggestions.

Some of these suggestions, a few, might even be unnecessary and overkill, the kind of thing that might make Sidney chuckle under his breath. But honestly, I’d rather have five crazy suggestions from Susan than have to reexplain five times to Sidney why things were a certain way in the first place.

About a year later I would find out that Sidney had flamed out and Susan had been promoted.

I discovered that the difference between Sidney and Susan wasn’t personality or ambition or hustle or anything like that. It was that Susan had learned how to strategically say no to tasks and priorities that would either overload her or were way out of her scope of work. That’s it. That was the only difference.

Believe me, I understand how difficult saying no can be. Most of the time we don’t even get the opportunity to even discuss why it may be a mistake for us to take on something that could be better done another way.

But is that always true? Do we really not have the phone number or email address or any way to communicate back to the boss or customer or coworker who is overloading us?

Or is it the case that we’re ill-equipped to say no, because over time we’ve become Sidney, and our job has turned into an avalanche of meetings and tasks instead of goals and milestones.

You can undo that.

We are predetermined to say yes to everything, especially in the business world where working “smarter-not-harder” sounds great, but doesn’t really fly at bonus time. In the real world, we need to give at least 100% to every task, if not 110%.

But one thing I like to say is, “If you’ve giving 110%, it usually means you’re giving 10% to 11 things.” You can only say “yes” to so much before you back yourself into a corner. Then what?

Remember that you are not there to be a butt in a seat. Experience has taught me that people are usually hired to do excellent work, then cynicism takes over. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Every time one of my corporate friends tells me how lucky I am that I don’t have to deal with all the bureaucracy that they slog through every day, I ask them when was the last time they did this:

Stop taking so many meetings and instead take some time to ask yourself: What is your company there for? What are you there for? Do you know? Have you asked? Recently?

Then develop a priority list that looks like this:

  1. Customer
  2. Partner
  3. Investor
  4. Team
  5. Boss

Yeah, boss is fifth. Remember the difference between Sidney and Susan. Your boss isn’t getting graded on how many meetings you’re rushing to. So know the difference between work and things that look like work. Things that look like work are short term wins but long term losses.

Align your goals with the company’s goals and you won’t ever go wrong.

In the short term, make some small changes to how you operate. Technology and calendars are awesome for this:

  • Schedule time in the morning to prepare for everything you have to do that day. Schedule time in the middle of the day to check your progress. Schedule time at the end of the day to review. Put this on your calendar.
  • Schedule 25 minute meetings for half-hours and 50 minute meetings for full hours. Use that time to prepare or review. Don’t schedule more than two back to back meetings in a row. Never schedule a meeting for more than 50 minutes unless it’s for an external and important constituent.
  • If your calendar is loaded up with other people’s meetings, ask yourself how much of a participant you are versus just an observer. If the latter, work with your coworkers to either remove you or break up the meeting into two halves and schedule you for the half you’re needed for.

A note about agendas. This is a pet peeve of mine. Don’t force agendas on your meetings (and I hope all of your coworkers and bosses read this). Agendas are usually just made-up justification to cover the meeting-maker’s ass and a way for them to not commit to actually making decisions. Agendas almost always make a meeting more useless. If an invitee to a meeting needs an agenda to understand why they’re needed, they’re not needed. Fight me.

This is going to be a short ending. Once you lose your cynicism, establish your goals and motivation, and align your goals and mission with your company’s goals and mission, you’re equipped to be able to defend not taking on any task that doesn’t fit that aligned mission.

Saying “no” feels so good. And when you have facts and reasoning to back it up, it can even be good for someone else to hear.

Hey! If you found this post actionable or insightful, please consider signing up for my newsletter at so you don’t miss any new posts. It’s short and to the point.

If you want more direct startup answers, look into Teaching Startup.

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Joe Procopio

Written by

I’m a multi-exit, multi-failure entrepreneur. Sold ExitEvent. Building & GetSpiffy. Former Automated Insights. More info at

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

Joe Procopio

Written by

I’m a multi-exit, multi-failure entrepreneur. Sold ExitEvent. Building & GetSpiffy. Former Automated Insights. More info at

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

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