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Lean Out: Getting Ahead By Saying No.

March 9, 2023

Forbes Council Member Jeaneane Falkler, President of Technicolor Games recently wrote a feature published by Forbes, addressing her thoughts and experiences on why it is so important for women to Lean Out.

Lean Out: Getting Ahead By Saying No

It is well-documented that women “lean in”—and do so across all areas of their lives, supporting their colleagues, partners and families by doing the lion’s share of work. In fact, when it comes to housework, women do two more hours daily than men, according to one recent study.

Why? Perhaps to strive to be “seen,” to fit into pre-assigned societal molds, to keep everyone happy, to conform. Generally speaking, women lean in on everything—house chores, work chores, vacation planning, social logistics, juggling school calendars, taking kids to soccer matches —and on it goes.

Yet the many books, articles, courses and lectures telling women to be more assertive in business show there is still a commonly adopted view that women don’t lean in, don’t ask for promotions and don’t take chances at work.

I really disagree with this sentiment. What I have seen throughout my career history in a particularly male-dominated industry is women consistently hired more for account manager roles than hunter roles because of gender, men getting out of doing shared group tasks of low value, and female colleagues not being promoted because they “don’t look the part.”

If women are not asking for promotions as often as men, it’s not because they don’t deserve them. According to a report by HBR (subscription required) citing a gender study at Stanford University, the self-assurance and promotion that accompanies such an ask is viewed negatively by male leaders in the workplace when it comes from women.

I believe the key to success at work is to lean out—to stop saying yes to everything so you have the ability, time and energy to lean in on what really matters to your career growth and success. This involves saying no. A lot.

I remember working with a young marketing coordinator who got particularly annoyed one day when yet another man asked her to set up a package for FedEx. Exasperated, she asked me, “Why do they keep asking me to do that?” I told her it was totally logical: She always had the answer—and her answer was yes. If what someone is asking is in their competency range, don’t do it for them and make them less self-sufficient. Lean out; say no. It’s one thing you’ve got full control over and can start doing today.

But how do we “lean out?”

Help Wisely

First, don’t be a helicopter colleague who does for others what they can and should do for themselves. First, ask yourself this: Do they really need your help, or is it simply less work for them or (more often) because they don’t think they should have to do those kinds of tasks? When you do help someone out, expect them to do it on their own next time.

Keep the focus on your own work, and do not let other people’s priorities become your priorities. For example, I once worked with a business leader who had a $250 million book of business and the company’s largest clients. Already stretched too thin, guess who volunteered when we needed a standardized deck for quarterly business reviews with clients? Not the solution architect or the marketing person, but this top business leader. When she should have stayed focused on revenue and her book of business, she leaned in on something that was in other people’s job descriptions—literally.

While it’s important to collaborate with colleagues, this doesn’t entail doing work for them or putting their priorities in front of your own. Pitching in where you don’t need to can actually weaken your perceived effectiveness, especially when C-level execs are left wondering if you are focused on the right priorities—for example, that $250 million business you’re managing.

Women, in particular, spend too much time doing work for others because helping is so engrained. So, let’s help ourselves first. I think the individualistic view that women on their own can change their outcomes is . . . aspirational. While you do need to be your own best advocate—no one else is going to be as invested in the outcome as you are—you don’t have to do it alone. You can form alliances with other women who strengthen each other.

Here’s an example from President Obama’s days in office. The women in his cabinet realized that men were taking credit for ideas they suggested, which is common in the business world, too. These women came up with the tactic of amplification: If, say, Jenni suggested an idea that Tom then repeated as his own, the other women present would amplify what Jenni had said by interjecting, “That’s a really great idea of Jenni’s, we should look at implementing that,” or “Great idea, Jenni, it sounds like your idea also has Tom’s support…”

Women started using this tactic only once we started talking about our shared experiences and focusing on ways to change things for the better, together. Obviously, men can support women in this way, too. It’s really about identifying an issue and ways to fix it, then communicating and collaborating with others. No one woman is going to change the world by herself. Look for people who are advocates, even if you disagree on other topics.

There will always be times when someone has an urgent request, or at least feels that they need your help urgently. But if the task at hand isn’t among your priorities, know when to say no. I’m not saying you shouldn’t help your colleagues—you can give someone direction without doing it for them. In terms of taking on other people’s work and priorities, lean out. It can make life much easier and help you be more effective at work.


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