Three years ago, during our Series A, I was talking to a lot of people I didn’t know and a lot of people who didn’t know me. And I turned down everyone who wanted to invest with a board seat as a prerequisite.
This is highly abnormal; everyone will tell you when you’re raising money that you can’t say no unless you’re already a massive success.
But my goal, which I’ve since achieved, was to build the fastest-growing American whiskey brand in history. No one had done what I wanted to do, so I knew it wasn’t going to happen on anyone’s advice.
When this process resumed with a later funding round, I had lunch with Helen Johnson-Leipold, one of my investors, to see if she thought I needed to add a formal board. It was a powerful woman-to-woman moment. When I shared with her how I’d built Uncle Nearest, she said, “No board.”
“The only reason you’ve moved as you’ve moved is because no one is there to slow you down,” she said. “You’ll know when it’s time to add a board.”
I’m not an imperial leader; it’s important to me to be democratic with my team, and I often take advice, especially from my phenomenal group of advisers. I also spend a lot of time with investors, building their trust in me and being open and transparent with what I’m doing and how I believe it’s helping the company grow. But there’s a difference between taking advice and being forced to take advice, and that’s the piece I needed to avoid.
Every time I walked away from the money, the company still grew, which gave me confidence to more often say no. Now, in my industry, in the investment community, and in my company, I’m known for saying no with zero regret and complete confidence. The more success I have, the fewer questions I get.
I know saying no is not always easy; often when I do, I can feel my back or neck tighten. Rest assured, a little time passes and it relaxes again.
My ability to set these boundaries has profoundly impacted how I allot my time. I’m running a company that’s experienced triple-digit growth rates for 11 straight quarters and an employee growth rate of more than 1,000 percent three years in a row. Everything that makes it onto my calendar has to be deemed HBU: highest and best use of my time. And HBU, for me, leads back to this: Will this activity I’m being invited to do grow my brand or the company? If the answer is no, the answer is no.
Each one of my team leaders, when making a request for my time, includes a variation of: “This is why I believe this is HBU for you.” By having them go through this process and determining whether the activity or request is a priority, it naturally weeds out unproductive calls, meetings, and events.
A big part of being able to say no is letting go. Early in my career, I was a control freak. I had come to the conclusion that if I wanted something done right, I had to do it myself. I was proud to work 18-hour days. The more mature I’ve become as a leader, the more foolish I’ve concluded that approach to be. I now have a different rule: If someone else can do it, I let them. In this context, the most important no I had to learn to say was to myself.
Often, if I say no, it catches people off-guard, as women aren’t typically known for doing this. In fact, I often hear other women repeat the old adage that you can catch more flies with honey. Well, I’m not interested in flies, or in the things to which they’re often drawn.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, I’ve discovered that people most respect those who are willing to give them a well-reasoned no, even many times, to get to the right yes. So say no without fear. Say no and let the chips fall where they may. You know your goal and what it’s going to take to get there, and you’re the only one responsible for achieving it.
From the October 2021 issue of Inc. Magazine