Why You Should Want to Be a Yes Man

 I am tired of business people talking about how they make tough
choices. The ersatz heroism is bad enough: See him there, the
beleaguered executive, his spreadsheets drenched with sweat as he tosses
and turns, making tough choices. Then there’s the one-upmanship: “You
think your choices are tough…” And – the sprinkles on the ice cream –
since many tough choices involve layoffs, they are actually far tougher
on someone else than on the decider.

I’m not saying such decisions are easy, knowing all too well that
they are not. The self-congratulatory machismo, however, distracts us
from a more important truth: You should be most proud when your choices
are easy. Of course, sometimes choices are easy because business is so
good that every nickel has two heads, but the kind of easy choice I’m
talking about stems from something else: the leadership ability and
strategic coherence that exist when you and your team know what you’re
doing and agree about priorities, values, and next steps.

New managers sometimes feel they have to establish their authority by
saying “no” a lot. They may shut down a program or move people around
for no more reason than because they can, or to send an unmistakable
signal that things are different. That may be necessary when a company
is in crisis, but more often than not, saying “no” is an expenditure of
political capital at a time when you should be trying to accumulate it.
Harvard Business School luminaries Michael Porter, Nitin Nohria, and Jay
Lorsch, in their article “Seven Surprises for New CEOS,” based on what they learned in an executive boot camp the three run, say that “giving orders is very costly”:

The need to overrule a proposal indicates that the
strategic planning and other processes in place may be either
inappropriate or insufficient. No proposal should reach the CEO for
final approval unless he can ratify it with enthusiasm…. Ironically, by
exercising his power to give orders, the CEO actually reduces his real
power, saps his energy and his organization’s, and slows down progress.

The best way to exercise power is to create conditions in which you
can say “yes” a lot more often than you ever say “no,” by shaping and
sharing your strategy so that people by themselves develop ideas that
fit it. Whenever you have to shoot something down, you should ask
yourself what went wrong. Is it because…

  • we lack a shared understanding of the game we’re in and how we’re
    playing it? You can’t be Best Western and Mandarin Oriental at the same
    time-but you’d be surprised by how many executives will try to follow
    two or more fundamentally contradictory paths at the same time or think
    they can have more than one core business.
  • we disagree about which capabilities really matter and which are
    less important? Functional leaders have a built-in desire to become
    best-in-class at everything. But you don’t need gold-plated new-product
    development for a company that competes on price rather than on
    innovation. Similarly, business-unit heads naturally want to get a
    disproportionate share of scarce resources for their products and
    projects.
  • we don’t have an apolitical way to sort through our growth
    opportunities? Without it, you’ll end up with a lot of proposals all
    heading off in divergent directions-adding to complexity, cost, incoherence, and the likelihood you’ll have to say “no.”
  • I need to work on my management and communication skills? Are your
    goals vague? Do you not delegate crisply? Do you make it difficult for
    people to come to you seeking guidance-or have you not made it clear
    when they should? One of the big reasons people get off track is that no
    one has told them what the track is, actually.

The energy you spend putting out fires should instead be devoted to
lighting them.  A great horseman, the late Wayne Carroll, used to say to
young riders who were learning to get the best out of beasts more
powerful than they: “Don’t nag at ‘em. Tell ‘em what to do, not what not to do.”

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