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Balancing Acts: The Art and Impact of Saying No as an Executive Assistant.


As an Executive Assistant the ability to gracefully say "NO" is a valuable skill that can significantly impact your effectiveness and the success of your executive.

The pressure to always accommodate all requests can be overwhelming. However, understanding that saying 'NO' is not just acceptable, but essential, can transform your role from reactive to proactive.


Setting Realistic Expectations:

As an executive assistant, you play a crucial role in managing your executive's time and priorities. It's imperative to set realistic expectations and communicate the boundaries of what can be accomplished.


Time Management:

It's essential to recognize that your executive cannot be in two places at the same time. Understanding this limitation is the first step in embracing the power of saying "NO." Your executive has a finite amount of time each day, and every commitment competes for that time. By saying "NO" to certain requests or tasks, you're effectively allocating time to the most critical activities. This not only enhances your executive's productivity but also contributes to the overall success of the organization.


Prioritizing Strategic Initiatives:

Every "YES" comes with an implicit "NO" to something else. By being selective in the commitments you accept, you ensure that your executive's time is dedicated to high-impact, strategic initiatives. Saying "NO" isn't a refusal; it's a strategic decision to ensure that your executive's commitments align with their priorities and goals..


Preserving Work-Life Balance:

Saying "NO" is a crucial tool in maintaining a healthy work-life balance for both you and your executive. Recognizing the limits of what can be achieved within a given timeframe helps prevent burnout and ensures that your executive can perform at their best when it matters most.


Effective Communication:

Saying "NO" isn't a sign of weakness; it's a demonstration of effective communication and prioritization. By clearly explaining the reasons behind your decision, you build trust and understanding with colleagues, stakeholders, and your executive. This transparency fosters a collaborative environment where everyone is aligned with the organization's goals.


What if I find it difficult to say “NO”?


  1. Offer Alternatives: Instead of a direct refusal, suggest alternatives that align with your executive's priorities. For example, "I appreciate your request; unfortunately, my executive’s [insert executive’s name] schedule is tight this week. However, I can connect you with [colleague] who may be able to assist you."

  2. Communicate Capacity: You can say, "I'm / My executive is, currently focused on urgent/important tasks for [insert executive’s name]. If your request can wait until [specific time], I'd be happy to see if I / they can help.". If you know the other person’s deadline then offer to help after that deadline. This can be particularly powerful tactic which normally results in the person finding somebody else or doing the task themselves.

  3. Seek Clarification: Sometimes, saying 'NO' can be avoided by seeking more information. "I'd like to understand more about your priorities to ensure I / my executive can assist effectively. Can we discuss the urgency and importance of this task?"


Busting the Branson Myth

There are stories that float around, and some have even been published, that state that Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, always said “YES” and in doing so became the successful entrepreneur he is.

Whilst Branson is known for his adventurous and risk-taking personality, I would say that it would be inaccurate to state that he always said 'YES.' Branson is indeed an entrepreneur who has embraced numerous challenges and pursued unconventional ventures, but his success also stems from making strategic decisions and knowing when to say 'NO.'

Branson himself has acknowledged the importance of saying 'NO' in various interviews and writings. In his book "The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership," he mentions the significance of setting boundaries and not spreading oneself too thin. He emphasizes the importance of focusing on core strengths and being selective about opportunities.

Entrepreneurs, including Branson, often face a barrage of opportunities and requests. Being discerning about where to invest time and resources is crucial for sustained success. While Branson is known for his openness to new ideas and willingness to take risks, it is likely that he, like any successful leader, has had to decline certain opportunities or projects that didn't align with his vision or the strategic direction of the Virgin Group.


In essence, Branson's success is not solely based on saying 'YES' to everything but rather on a combination of calculated risks, strategic decision-making, and the ability to recognize when to decline opportunities. Saying 'YES' to the right things and 'NO' to others has likely played a crucial role in the overall success of Richard Branson and the Virgin Group.



Saying "NO" is a sentence that holds immense power when wielded with thoughtfulness and purpose.

Saying "NO" is not a negative action; it's a strategic choice that allows you to channel your efforts where they matter most.

Embrace it, and watch how it transforms the way you and your executive approach priorities and achieve success.

About the Author:


Richard Arnott, BA, FInatAM, FIToL, is the Director of BMTG (UK) Ltd, and the author and lead presenter of the groundbreaking, globally recognised Advanced Certificate for the Executive Assistant: ACEA® program. Richard also sits on the editorial board of Lucy Brazier OBE’s Executive Support Magazine

Please connect with Richard on Linkedin and please also join our LinkedIn group, "The Advanced Certificate for the Executive Assistant: ACEA®," to connect with a community of forward-thinking executive assistants committed to career growth and development

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