A decade ago, a fresh-out-of-college entrepreneur was trying to convince a Sri Lankan tea seller to make a deal with him. He wanted the seller, who owned a boutique tea company, to become a supplier for the loose-leaf retail tea business he was trying to get off the ground. Although he could sense the man’s skepticism—in fact, after trying to refer him to a distributor, the tea seller heard him out. Rather than a flat-out “no,” he basically told the start up, “not yet.” Eventually, the start up managed to convince the tea seller to give him a shot. This ended up being the right decision for both parties. This business helped fuel the startup’s early growth, and it now enjoys a huge contract as one of the suppliers.
Experts claim that learning to say “No” is one of the most critical skills in leadership and career but they are not exactly wrong, but will only take you so far. There’s a subtle art, and power in turning someone down while keeping the door open. It’s an investment. It’s a calculated risk. It’s a networking tool.
Recently, whilst preparing to launch a new food venture, the erstwhile start up recently reached out to a potential supplier of a crucial ingredient and they said to him, “There’s no way you’re going to do our minimum, so this won’t work.” He hung up the phone and started reflecting about that early deal he almost failed to strike with the Sri Lankan supplier so many years ago, if it weren’t for his thoughtful “not yet.”
There is something powerful about this two-word phrase, saying “not yet”. It isn’t about procrastinating and it’s not just a tool for delaying a decision. Instead, it makes room to start a dialogue and build relationships, which is what every successful entrepreneur needs to do. Giving a hard “no,” on the other hand, is a way to terminate a relationship or forestall one from starting. What’s worse, some people reject proposals in a way that makes you feel you’re not good enough for them. This adds insult to injury, and in the end, everyone loses.
You obviously can’t consider every half-baked idea that crosses your path, and not every email from some random person asking you to transfer funds is worth of a reply. For that reason, the first step in embracing the “not yet” mentality is being selective about who you respond to in the first place.
As a leader, if you simply shoot someone down, you send a message to that person that they aren’t valued. Simply swapping a “no” for a “not yet” not only leaves the door open a crack, it also requires you to explain your decision and provide context. This forces you to make better, more informed decisions overall.
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