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How Do You Say “No” in the Boardroom?

How Do You Say “No” in the Boardroom?

As servant leaders in the hospitality industry, general managers are programmed to please both members and their guests. The DNA of the best hospitality executives contains this trait. Jeff McFadden, COO/GM of The Union League of Philadelphia, operates by the mantra “The answer is ‘yes.’ Now what’s the question?”  We know the answer can’t always be “yes,” yet creating alternatives to “no” is crucial. Saying “no” too many times can be a career limiting experience.

More frequently, boards engage us because their prior general manager was perceived as having a narrow view—not being open minded to suggestions or was not progressive (enough) in his/her approach to managing change. When the GM’s answer is predominately “no”—without offering alternate solutions or recommendations to the question—the board eventually looks for a “yes” response, and then gets it from their next general manager.

The answer “no” may suffice as long as legitimate alternative recommendations or solutions are provided. While it is critical to identify the best solution, the general manager may need to gather more intelligence or defer suggestions until more thought can be given to the request.

So how do you balance managing the business and being responsible to a variety of stakeholders who have different ideas and in some cases, different agendas with what you professionally believe is the right answer?


Demonstrate that you are listening and that their ideas matter. It is easy to understand how managers can get frustrated when volunteer members who may not understand the nuances or mechanics of club management question their expertise. Managers must be respectful of the board members’ volunteer commitment, time and professional successes. Consider their ideas and perspectives and find a way to extract the good ideas and, if necessary, rework those that aren’t as good. Simply said, find a way to reach a common consensus—many of their ideas may be noteworthy.

Managing Up

What does it take to manage up?  In a recent survey conducted with our clients, respondents ranked behaviors in order of importance from a range of choices of what it takes for their managers to be successful in managing up. The top six responses from fifteen choices were:

Being proactive, demonstrating initiative                                                   62%

Understanding your manager’s style, working preferences and needs     52%

Keeping managers apprised of progress in achieving goals                      44%

Anticipating and facilitating resolution of problems                                     42%

Being open and honest                                                                               33%

Bringing solutions                                                                                        33%

When asked in the survey to rank board member behaviors that if absent or poorly demonstrated would be most damaging to their motivation, managers rated the following seven highest among 28 choices:

Avoiding micro-managing, balancing “hands off” with “the need to know”   47%

Being treated with respect                                                                            44%

Being consistent, fair and predictable                                                           40%

Being open and willing to listen to suggestions                                             29%

Leading by example (being a positive role model)                                        29%

Being trustworthy                                                                                           28%

Providing positive feedback, appreciative of your efforts                               26%

Saying “no” for most people who work in hospitality is not in one’s DNA and sometimes comes from frustration. This is a critical time for emotional intelligence to kick in.

Self-Regulate – Stay cool, calm and unemotional and work to defuse the situation where emotion may block communication.

Be Self-Aware – Recognize your own emotions and the impact of your behavior or actions on the various stakeholders.

Show Empathy – Recognize your board member’s or your manager’s state of mind, their pressures, problems and issues, and tailor your message and your timing accordingly.

Use Social Skills – Communicate succinctly, listen and hear, influence and diffuse difficult situations.

The best managers create an environment in which a meritocracy of ideas thrives—the best idea wins, regardless of its source.

Dan Denehy is the president of DENEHY Club Thinking Partners, an executive search and management- consulting firm that has handled nearly 300 projects for more than 100 private clubs and boutique resorts. He can be reached at [email protected] or learn more at