Why You Should Want to Be a Yes Man

Last Updated May 10, 2011 1:07 PM EDT

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."

Illustration courtesy flickr user CRYROLFE