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Founder Friday: How saying ‘no’ helped to scale my business

Helen Whait, the founder of ActivOT delves into the art of mastering the skill of saying NO and shares how it transformed her business

In the hustle of entrepreneurship, it often seems like we’re compelled to say ‘yes’ to every opportunity to stay ahead or avoid being seen as weak by our peers.

And as a working parent, there’s that nagging worry and feeling of guilt – does saying ‘no’ mean letting our family down?

“Many of us consume a tonne of content – blogs, articles, books, podcasts, TED Talks – about avoiding burnout. But the real question is, how many of us actually integrate those tips into our daily grind? I live by the mantra, ‘well people make others well.’ If we’re saying ‘yes’ to everything, cramming our calendars, making endless to-do lists with impossible tasks, and ultimately burning out, how can we effectively support our employees, clients, and loved ones? Maybe it’s time to prioritise helping ourselves first.

“In 2012 I started ActivOT, an Occupational Therapy franchise business. I had seen an opportunity to create a utopia for Occupational Therapists who wanted to escape the mantra of paperwork and BS first, patient care second.” 

“Back in the day, franchising allied health was pretty much unheard of, but I was determined to make a difference. I felt a calling to shake up the industry and create a space where Occupational Therapists could excel without getting burned out. My vision was to establish a business model that prioritised client focus. To achieve this, I learnt from other dynamic leaders who backed me up and showed me the importance of saying ‘no.’ “

“By mastering the art of saying ‘no,’ I gained empowerment and steered my business to become a major player on the national stage in the industry. Once I started trusting my instincts and saying a firm “no” to tasks or opportunities that didn’t align with my values, things started to take off. Consistently applying this approach made me more focused, and we began achieving even better results, going from strength to strength.”

Here are some practical tips that proved invaluable to me in navigating the art of saying ‘no.’ I genuinely hope these tips assist you on your journey to transform your business. 

Understand the root causes of your need to say yes

Spend some time reflecting on why you feel compelled to say “yes” so often and how this pattern has impacted your life. Once you are clear on the root cause, take a step back, zoom out and consider the long-term impacts of saying “yes” – what is saying “yes” all the time costing you? 

Get clear on your purpose

Before embarking on your journey to becoming a “no” expert, it’s essential to be clear on your “why.” Reflect on your values, goals, and aspirations, and recognise that by saying “yes” to everything, you risk diluting your focus and losing sight of what truly matters. Embracing the power of saying “no” enables you to protect your time and energy for the things that align with your purpose and make your heart sing. That is when you will see growth and the transformation your desire.

Use the ‘Tomorrow Test’

When in doubt, use the “tomorrow test” to assess whether saying “yes” is really what you want. Consider how you’d feel if you had to do it tomorrow. Would you be excited or wish you had never said yes? This simple tool can provide valuable clarity and help you make informed decisions.

Outsource what doesn’t align

Before your ‘cup is full’, recognise that you don’t have to do everything by yourself. One effective strategy for saying “no” is to delegate or outsource tasks that don’t require your unique skills or expertise. Do you have to do this, or could someone else? Confidently pass it on, it will be ok. This frees up your time for activities that truly deserve your attention and passion.

Actually practice saying “No” out loud. 

Just like any skill, saying “no” becomes easier with practice. Take the time to say it out loud to yourself, experimenting with different phrases that suit your style. Having a repertoire of ready-to-use responses ensures you won’t be caught off guard or pressured into commitments you’re uncomfortable with. 

Here are a few examples to get you started:

“That task will be completed more efficiently/effectively by [name or team].”

“As much as I would love to help out, I have xyz priorities/commitments at the moment that require my focus.”

“Thank you for thinking of me. I am honoured to be asked, but I think this opportunity might be better suited to xyz instead.”

Or simply say, “No, thank you”. 

Buy yourself some time

If you find it challenging to say “no” in the moment, asking for some time to consider the request is perfectly acceptable. Politely explain that you need to check your schedule, speak to your team, evaluate your priorities, or simply take a moment to think about it. 

This approach allows you to gather your thoughts and respond in a thoughtful manner. By asking for time and then delivering your response, you demonstrate respect for both yourself and the person making the request. You show that you have taken their invitation seriously and given it due consideration, even if the ultimate answer is a “no.”

Reframe ‘no’ 

Contrary to popular belief, saying no is not a selfish act but rather an act of kindness—to ourselves and to others. It creates opportunities for someone who really wants to take on the task or opportunity. So really a win-win scenario. 

Ask for help, seek support

Getting better at saying “no” also involves developing the courage to ask for support when needed. Instead of shouldering everything, reach out to others and invite them to contribute and collaborate. People generally appreciate being asked. You’re also giving them the opportunity to openly say “no” if they’re not able to help. By creating a mutually supportive environment, you strengthen your relationships and foster a sense of collaboration.

Saying “no” is not about being unkind or shutting doors—it’s about setting healthy boundaries and prioritising what truly matters to you. By understanding your “why,” outsourcing non-essential tasks, practising assertiveness, and embracing collaboration, you can transform your business into something you are truly proud of.  

Helen Whait is an award-winning occupational therapist, innovator and the founder of ActivOT, Australia’s first occupational therapy franchise which helps occupational therapists become successful business owners. You can follow Helen on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/helen-whait/.

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