'No' means 'not yet': How to survive professional disappointment

What do you do when "gatekeeper" bosses say no to your great ideas? You go back and pitch them again, says Beth Comstock, former Vice Chair of GE.

Beth Comstock: Yes, so “‘no’ equals ‘not yet’” is one of my kind of favorite mantras and a mental hack that was very helpful to me.

I think early in my career I—like many people—worked for a classic “gatekeeper” boss and he “had all the answers,” and the team got quite frustrated.

We thought we had a different way, different ideas to keep us contemporary and move forward, and he said no. I ended up leaving that job because I thought the gatekeeper was standing in my way. And what I came to realize is that gatekeepers exist everywhere. They’re probably even in our own head sometimes, where we just say we can’t do it.

And so out of that experience I realized there were a lot of ways I could have kept going back and trying a different approach with the gatekeeper. And I learned that with other gatekeepers and that “no” is “not yet”. So just because you hear no the first time, it doesn’t mean no is final.

And I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen in the course of my career – I’m talking people just starting out which may be a little bit more understandable because you don’t know yet—all the way up to CEOs. When they hear no from whatever person they’re pitching an idea to they leave and you never see them again with that idea.

And you think well, you had all this passion. You had all this insight. Someone told you no and you just let it dissipate? It’s gone?

So to me I had to learn like “no” perhaps is an invitation. An invitation to come back again to try it. I had a three time rule that I would often use with different bosses I had where I felt like I needed at least three times to go back with the idea. What I learned is two things. One is I’m testing the idea myself: I’m trying to like put the right words together. Sometimes it’s just the words are wrong; The story is not there; I’m not being clear.

And I think if it’s the manager or someone is coming to you, you’re testing their passion for it. You’re testing how good an idea they think it is, because if somebody’s pitching you an idea but they’re not that excited about it you’re counting on them to go forward. So I think this idea of “no is not yet” is a resiliency test. It’s a way to say “how much do you care about that idea, how much do you want it to happen?” And it’s a sign of commitment to the idea.

Disappointment is an inevitable part of making change, of pushing for innovation and I think we have this fantasy that we buy in that you just pitch a brilliant idea, you’re just so fantastic, fantastically suited for it. You just go forth and the idea gets green-lit and off you go.

The reality is just because you’re well liked, your boss likes you, your team likes you, you’ve had a good track record doesn’t mean people are going to give you blind trust that the next idea is good. People want to know: what are you prepared to do to work for it? And I’ve found certainly in myself and in people I’ve worked with that often it’s those “try again” moments where you didn’t quite get off the right foot in pitching the idea or maybe you did a test of it and it didn’t work. And it’s when you come back and say, “I tried this and it didn’t work. Here, I’m disappointed. Here’s what I propose to do about it.” So I think a lot of this kind of resiliency building is a test of how do you deal with the disappointment? And I think disappointment is something you have to accept as part of the change-making process.

I have a little belief for myself that there’s a time to be disappointed. “I’m really sad that that idea didn’t get bought. In a sense I couldn’t sell it. People didn’t like, they didn’t understand what I was saying. Am I crazy? Do I not communicate? And I’m upset. I’m upset.”

And so I think you have to give yourself a little bit of time to kind of suck your thumb and say, “Ugh, I didn’t do as well as I wanted.” But then go, “Do I still believe in it? Is it still a good idea? How do I take that feedback? And now, I’ll go back and address some of those issues if they’re relevant.”

And use that disappointment as a bit again of that kind of push, a kick in the butt to get out there. So just because you have a good track record doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful the next time. And use that disappointment to be a bit of rocket fuel for yourself. Learn from it, but also say “Hey, do I still want to do this?” So that’s how I think about disappointment and kind of using it as resiliency.

What do you do when "gatekeeper" bosses say no to your great ideas? You go back and pitch them again, says Beth Comstock, former Vice Chair of GE. She learned that it doesn't matter how great your track record is - you can still hear a "no" to your proposal. But what's important is whether you have the passion and the resilience to get back out there and keep pursuing your idea until it's implemented.

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