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Business "No-How"

Posted By Ron Sidman, Friday, October 25, 2019


While all leaders want to be positive, supportive, and proactive, there are times when the right thing to do is say no. Knowing when and how to say no to an opportunity or request is a critical leadership skill and a key to business success. But it’s often surprisingly difficult to do.


If you’ve read my previous posts, you know I’m a big advocate of positive thinking, continuous improvement, prudent risk-taking, and customer service. But when I reflect on my own career, there were times when saying no to customers, employees, or other stakeholders was the right although more painful thing to do. The problem is that it’s typically much easier to say yes and make someone happy than say no and have to deal with the negative fallout.


The best method I know of to make decision-making easier is to put the time and effort in up front to create both a clear “vision” for your business (exactly what you want it to look like in 5 or 10 years) and a clear “mission” (the means by which you’re going to achieve your vision). Then as each opportunity or decision comes along, you can ask yourself whether saying yes gets you closer to your vision. And, if so, does it do it in a way that is in sync with your mission. If you’ve ever wondered what visions and missions are for, this is it.


Of course, like all life and business advice, it’s great in theory but not always easy to follow. To illustrate the difficulty, I’ll tell you about a couple of instances in my own career where I fell off the wagon.

The First Years Vision and Mission

From the brand’s creation in 1972, we had a vision of becoming a leading juvenile product brand respected for helping parents make the first 3 years of life happier, healthier, and easier for themselves and their children. The mission that we felt would be the means to that end was to provide parents with “superior value from superior in-use performance.” In other words, we would attract customers via functional superiority—offering products provably superior to competition in doing what parents and their babies needed them to do. In fact, we did that quite successfully for many years by virtue of excellent designers and engineers, an outstanding product development process, our Parents’ Council, and input from child development experts. But then . . . .

Unbearable Temptation

In the mid 90’s, what was dangled in front of us was an opportunity that just seemed too good to pass up. Because of our reputation for product quality and child development expertise, Disney offered us exclusive rights to the red-hot Winnie-the-Pooh license for virtually our entire product line. Exciting and flattering as it was, it was clearly a departure from our mission. The appeal of a license is all about the graphics, not product performance. While I had some reservations, the enthusiasm of our marketing team and my own vanity persuaded me to go for it.


It was absolutely fantastic for a few years. Driven largely by licensed product sales, our overall sales and profits skyrocketed. However, as a consequence, we became more and more reliant on and beholden to Disney while taking away resources from building our core product line. It also made it less clear internally and probably to our customers what our company and brand stood for. As usually happens with hot licenses, gradually the bloom came off the rose culminating in a sudden precipitous decline in Pooh product sales. This could have been financially disastrous had we not seen it coming. I also always wonder what we could have done with The First Years brand had we devoted our full resources and attention to it rather than being distracted.

“Starck” Reality

Another time “no” was probably the right answer was when one of our biggest customers, Target, asked us to produce for them a line of private label products designed by renowned designer Philippe Starck. Again, this was clearly a departure from the substance of our mission. It couldn’t have been further from our strategy of building our own brand and relying on our own design expertise and product superiority to win the day. Understandably, our Target sales people desperately wanted to do it. Their rationale was that it would solidify our relationship with a very important account. I took the easy way out and agreed rather than risking alienating a large customer and disappointing my own sales force. 


To put it mildly, it was a disaster. While Mr. Starck was and I’m sure still is an excellent and successful designer of many things, I think it’s fair to say that infant products were not his forte. The products just plain didn’t sell and the whole program was discontinued within a couple of months. We lost money and I’m not even sure it improved our relationship with Target. In retrospect I could have and should have explained to Target up front that this type of product development was not our strength. They probably would have respected us more if I had.

Next Steps

You can clearly see from my examples that you need a clear vision and mission for your company and should resist the temptation to drift away from it. You can’t be all things to all customers. Every time you say yes to something, you’re taking resources away that could be applied to something else. Let your vision and mission be the guides to what to do and not do. 


As always, if you’d like more information or assistance regarding achieving your business and life goals or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program by scheduling a Skype or Face Time session with me. I’d enjoy meeting you and helping you any way I can. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Reta Feldman at


 Ron Sidman was the founder and CEO of The First Years, Inc. and former Vice Chairman of the JPMA Board of Directors. He is currently a business consulting resource for JPMA members and serves on the Advisory Boards of both the Institute for Entrepreneurship and the Dean of the College of Education at Florida Gulf Coast University. Ron is also the President of Evolutionary Success, LLC, a life and business coaching company.

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