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When should you say no? Your career depends on it!

When is it appropriate to say no to a piece of work? If you are in professional services, are a contractor or consultant there will be regular times when client work is in the offing. Then you need to think “should I do this piece of work”. 


I find this a rather common thought. The reason this thought pops into my head is that whilst occasionally a piece of work comes along that is a perfect match for my skills, more often than not the roles offered are not an exact match. Every piece of work is unique and every client is different. Then I wonder – “am I right for this job”.

Generally, for people who earn their livings selling their skills on a short term contract basis, this issue becomes more acute in times of economic downturn. There is less work around. The temptation to take any work that comes along, irrespective of its fit with your skills, increases. There is an economic reality to most people’s lives, but I want to ignore that in this article. Ignoring pure personal economics, when should you say no to work? There are two ways of looking at this question – from a client’s perspective and from your own.

Let’s first look at it from the client’s perspective. Imagine a client has asked you to do a piece of work. The job is there for the taking. Should you do it? I think this can be broken down into two subsidiary questions:

•Can you do it?

•Is it in the client’s interest that you do it?

Assessing if you can do it relates to your skills for the job, and your ability to work in the specific client’s culture and environment. Whether you can do it is not always clear cut. It’s not often totally clear what the client actually wants until you start the work. It’s also rarely obvious what it would be like to work in that client’s business. But there are evident boundaries when you know you should not do the work. The best you can do is to make a reasoned judgement with the information available.

There is also an apparent ethical element to this decision. If you are a professional you should really only take work you have a good degree of confidence you can do. Even if you are totally self interested, it won’t do your career any good to regularly fail at pieces of work, (although some people do seem to get away with it for quite a while).

Assuming you decide you can do the work, then it’s a little more interesting and complex to ask yourself is whether it’s in the client’s interest for you to do it. Professional services is a huge, busy and competitive market. It would be naive to think you should only take work you are the world’s best at. More often than not there will be someone somewhere who could do the work better, but it’s unrealistic to be expected to consider this. What is more sensible to consider is whether it would be simple and easy for the client to find someone a lot better or significantly cheaper? 

On several occasions I have told clients something along the lines of "I could do this for you, but I really think you should find someone else”. For instance I have been offered work than many people at half my rates could do perfectly well, and work in an industry I know absolutely nothing about. By advising a client to find someone else I have lost some work, but not all, and in most situations I have developed a much deeper and longer lasting client relationship. Trust me, it’s worth it!

Hence you can decide from the client’s perspective if you should do work. But there is another dimension to consider. And that is: is the job in your interest? Just because a client offers you work and that you could do, for money you would like, does not mean you should take it. 

One consideration is the basic fact that once you are busy you can’t do something else. If you take this piece of work, you can take something else. What is the likelihood something better will come along? This is really a risk management decision - a judgement you have to make time and again. The only advice I can give is that it is usually much less likely that something better will come than you expect. There is work that is obviously too sub-optimal for you – so reject it. But often I see individuals turn down work which is only marginally sub-optimal for them and live to regret it.

I have met many consultants and contractors who turned down nice work because they believed the perfect job was round the corner, only to be disappointed. In the worst case, I know someone who turned down a perfectly respectable long-term piece of work for an opportunity at about 10% higher rates. This opportunity never materialised and they then earned no fees for about 9 months. The old adage “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” comes to mind. Of course, sometimes that perfect job really is just around the corner. If you are going to do that perfect job, you can’t already be fully committed.

There is a much more interesting and important question. What will doing this work do for you and the future work you are offered? If you just want to busy and do whatever comes along at whatever fee rate you can get, you can ignore this question. But if you want to earn the highest fees then you need to be a specialist. More than this, you need to be a recognised specialist.  Being a specialist is on one hand about your knowledge and skills, but being able to work as a specialist is a reflection of what work you are perceived have done and achieved in the past. If you want to build up a reputation as a specialist you have to say no to those bits of work that don’t help building your recognition. Even if you are a very capable specialist too many peripheral unrelated client engagements dilute the perception of your specialisation.

If you want to be recognised specialist, you will find you have to say no often. It took me a while to understand this rather simple truth. It has helped me tremendously since I have. 


Want more to think more about related topics? Try my book The Management Consultant, Mastering the Art of Consultancy.

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