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  • JJ Rorie

How to Say No: Protecting your Backlog, Strategy, and Mental Health Through Product Leadership

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

Episode 076

Ever wondered how the magic word 'no' can catapult your product management career to a whole new level? Then it's time to tune in! We're graced with the presence of Jo McCawley, a senior director of product and seasoned veteran of the ad tech world, and he's ready to reveal the importance of saying 'no' in product management. We touch on everything from setting boundaries to tackling tricky conversations, all with the aim of safeguarding your strategy, mental health, and professional relationships.

In this lively discussion, McCawley highlights the art of declining with grace, using her 15 years of experience to illustrate how this simple tactic can amplify your career and make you a better ally to your team and customers. It's not just about saying 'no', it's about how you say it! McCawley also takes us through some unconventional methods she's employed to practice the art of refusal, including a boundary workshop at a cuddle party! This is an episode jam-packed with pivotal insights and strategies, so don’t miss out on this opportunity to sharpen your product management skills.



Connect with Jo:


Template statements to help say no...

As a _____, my recommendation is _____, because it will delay the following previous commitments of _____ which puts us at risk of missing the following goal _____.

“Yes, and at the following cost…”

Book: The Art of Saying No, by Damon Zahariades

Episode Transcript:


product, conversation, template, work, practice, experience, customers, improv, important, team, improv class, helps, stakeholders, concise, impactful, relationship, product managers, cost, conflict, resources

Intro (the incomparable Sandra Segrest): 00:03

Welcome to Product voices, a podcast where we share valuable insights and useful resources to help us all be great in product management. Visit the show's website to access the resources discussed on the show, find more information on our fabulous guests, or to submit your product management question to be answered in our special q&a episodes. That's all at product And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform. Now, here's our host, JJ Rorie, CEO of great product management.

JJ 00:37

Hello, and welcome to product voices. This episode, we're going to be talking about something that is very important in our product lives but also not that easy. We have to learn to say no, say no to our stakeholders even say no to our leaders and our customers from time to time. And that's not easy. We want to be the ones who say yes and do everything that is possible. For our stakeholders and our customers. It's not always easy to say no to those folks. But it's so important, it's important to prioritize, it's important to stick to our strategy and what we're trying to accomplish. And sometimes requests come in that do not allow us to align with those things. And so we must say no. So today's conversation is going to be about how to say no how to protect your product, how to protect your strategy, even protect your mental health, through saying no through understanding when to say no, when to say yes, etc. So I'm really, really excited about this conversation. I think it's going to help everyone and I've got a great great guest with me today to share her experiences and to enlighten us on ways that have worked for her and her teams on saying no to the wrong thing so that we can say yes to the right things. Jo McCawley has over 15 years of experience in the ad tech world and is currently at Emoto as Senior Director of Product for their DSP and demand platforms. She's worked at companies like freewill, media math and cargo. She is wonderful leader and product person, she's fiercely protective of her engineers time and resources, which really, really matters in our collaborative world. She's a strong advocate for minority representation in tech, and probably most importantly, thinks that the key to a good retro is a strong Spotify playlist. So Jo, thank you so much for joining me, I'm looking forward to the conversation.

Jo 02:42

Thank you so much. I'm so happy to be here. And I'm so excited to talk about this.

JJ 02:47

You bet. You bet. Again, it's so important and something that we all struggle with, especially, you know, newer product managers getting into the role, they don't realize how hard this can be and how important this is, but it's us, it's also something that, you know, we all can struggle with from time to time. So, you know, let's just set the stage. You know, say no, we you know, what does that what does that mean to you in product management, you know, saying yes to the right thing saying no to the wrong things, all of that. Tell me a little bit about how you learned that and how kind of you know, that came about and the acknowledgement of the importance of this throughout your career?

Jo 03:23

Absolutely, absolutely. So I think one of the things I love most about product management and an owning product and releasing really impactful product is being a people pleaser and and hearing such valuable feedback and knowing you're making your customers happy. And all of that is so important. And it really does play into my personality, which is a people pleaser. So when I first got into product management, I really struggled with saying no, it was something that was incredibly complicated for me and I I really struggled with it. So I took a number of different approaches. I talked to my therapist, I talked to a number of even healthcare professionals, because it was something that I needed to learn not only for product management, but for my entire life and just getting boundaries aligned and all of that kind of thing. So I have some a lot of experience in saying yes, which I know a lot of people do. But before I got into product management, I was I was at Second City and their conservatory program and took a lot of improv classes and improv is all about saying yes. And it's all about saying yes. And so in all of my learnings in talking with therapist and the research that I was doing, there was a lot of you're great at saying yes How can we switch the conversation? So saying no to someone saying yes to yourself. And having that foundation is so incredibly important, and really helped me set the stage to be able to progress and learn and practice?

JJ 05:14

Wow, it's, that's an amazing perspective. And I love how you said saying no to someone else's, it allows you to say yes to yourself, right? I think that's a huge foundation on which that we can build these skills and love that you were at Second City, I'm gonna dig into that in a minute and ask you some more. But that's, that's really, really cool. So like, as you learned this about or knew this about yourself and learn to navigate it, if you will learn to kind of flip it and say, No, when you need to say no, are there, you know, templates or methods or, you know, anything that you found that tends to, to help almost trigger the ability to say no, or to start that conversation? Because that's, to me, and I found that, you know, myself and lots of people who struggle with this, it's the start of the conversation, it, the anticipation of it is almost worse, so than actual, you know, having the conversation or saying no, so any templates, methods, you know, statements that tend to work for you?

Jo 06:19

Yeah, absolutely. So as product managers, we're all very familiar with creating user statements, right. And we have experienced, and we know that dealing with upper management, or C suite, or stakeholders and even some complicated customers, the more clear and concise you can be, it's really helpful. So I do have a template that I use. And I use it a lot for the harder conversations with maybe more internally and using them to really kind of manage up and work with executives and board members and those kinds of things. So I have a template very similar to a user statement where I have as a blank, my recommendation is blank, because it will delay the following previous commitments of blank, which puts our risk of missing the following goal, right. So just to kind of put that in perspective and give you an example. So myself, I am very fortunate in that I work in a product led organization. And so being able to work in that kind of capacity, I am responsible for my p&l, right. So I can say to my stakeholders, and my very product focused and product intelligent C suite. Our CEO has a ton of experience in product. So for that I'm incredibly grateful. But what I'm able to say to him and to a lot of the executives that I work with, I just say no as, as an owner of the p&l, my recommendation is no because it will delay the cost of the previous commitments of whatever and our last product and increment that we've committed to. And then I like to end by saying, it puts us at the risk of missing the following revenue goal or the following release goal and being incredibly specific in that statement. And that's it, that's all I need to say, right. And so making it as quick and clear and concise as it possibly can be. And using that sort of template to say no, really, really helps set the stage, it sets the conversation, it makes it easy for whoever is listening to digest, whether it be in Slack, or in email, or in a presentation or in a meeting. I actually have this template taped to my desk. So I, I you know, I'm able to use it and have it in front of me just to guide some of my conversations in zoom meetings, because I primarily work from home. So it's a great tool to just have to be able to fill in those blanks very quickly. And sometimes if I know that I'm going to have a hard conversation, over zoom or in a meeting, I might get that template filled out ahead of time, right. So that I can have all of this language in front of me ready to go and have concrete examples that are as clear as concise as possible. Because really getting to the the just the center of what by saying no, what are we actually saying yes to and that is really, really helpful. I also have more of a gentler template I use for customers. Is is you know, I think when you're talking to customers specifically, it's usually easier to say Yes, and at the following cost. So I kind of turned the template around a little bit when speaking to customers, and make that more of a conversation of, I'll say yes to this. But it also means we might need to say no to the following things and kind of help them drive the importance or, you know, conversation forward, to allow them to have a voice and what they are saying yes to, or what you're saying yes to, and what that means and what the cost of that is, I think is good product managers, we know what the cost is. And so being able to articulate that to customers is helpful. It's just easier to say it in a more friendly way. And so that's when I think more of a yes, and at this cost, kind of helps for that template.

JJ 10:54

I love both of those so much. And by the way, if you if you're okay with it, we'll you know, literally put those two little statements out on the show notes, because I think it will help people. You know, it does a couple of things it allows you to well build your confidence, I think, and that's one of the important things about saying no, as you're being confident in it. And you're you're saying no for good business reasons or good reasons. Or you're saying yes, at the following costs for good reasons. And the confidence that you show and the ability to clearly articulate what those things are, right, whatever you're, you know, saying no to or the reasons you're saying no, I think is so important. And those are the things that that we struggle with it again, just in my experience, personally, and in my experience, being around product for so long is that it's just it's difficult to clearly articulate the reasons we're saying no, and to make that connect with the person we're saying no to right, make them understand it. And so your example, or story about, you know, this saying, you know, as the b&o owner, my recommendation is no, because it will delay this feature, this previous commitment that is very clear to executives, to stakeholders, and they can wrap their heads around it very quickly. So I love those templates. And, again, just those techniques, I mean, and that's really what it is to help us get over that. That hurdle. That's awesome. Really good.

Jo 12:22

Yeah. Yeah. And I, I know that saying yes, and and say no, whichever way you're going with it. And being very concise and giving clear examples. It is impactful, and it does give you a stronger backbone. And if you really shift your way of thinking on saying No, it'll allow you to navigate obstacles and generate ideas. I feel like I'm most creative, when I'm saying yes, and because it forces me to really think of the consequence very quickly, and to just free up my mind and just fill in that and piece as organically as I possibly can. And it does, it really does help me be creative. And I think it helps the people who are listening to me and and helping lead with me or, or work with me on a team just feel more involved in that conversation. So it's helpful in that way as well.

JJ 13:23

Yeah. The I want to dig a little bit on that I just I love the fact that you've you've done Second City, you've you've done improv and I've heard stories about people who were used it as a as a professional development tool, if you will, and you know, workshops at improv and or through improv and that sort of thing. So tell me, tell me more about it. Tell me more about your experience there. And you know, specifically how that yes, and you know, framework, what it is and how you how you use it in improv, but then also, how do you kind of bring it, bring it into the workplace and to the product team? I'd love to just hear a little bit more about that. Yeah, absolutely.

Jo 14:06

So the golden rule of improv is saying yes, and you never in a scene want to say no, when someone suggests someone, or someone puts an idea out, if someone were to say, look, the sky is blue, you would never want to say no, because it really does stop everything. It kind of holds all conversation. So being able to Yes, and that and and kind of build on top of it. It creates this safe space to move forward. And I think that that applies and everything really. And it's really important and impactful in business and being able to keep conversations moving forward. But to think quickly and creatively together. And as Yes, and is the foundation, taking improv classes is develop hoping muscle and being able to work at in with scene partners is very similar to working with stakeholders, your engineers, you know, it's very, very similar. And it gives you the tools to get out of your head, be open to ideas, and really think through things. One of the funnest experiences I've had recently is working with our design team, we have an incredible design team and we yes and together all the time and just working through that and and coming up with better workflows and just better practices and helping our customers to be able to create strong campaigns really quickly that achieve their KPIs through that sort of mind frame is really important. And our, the company I'm at right now in modo is so supportive, and appreciative of that, that we recently took an improv class together, we, we were in New York for our pie. And we as as an engineering and product team, took some improv, took an improv class together, and it was so much fun. And we're all trying to embrace the Yes, and, and it's helping in all sorts of ways and has really improved our collaboration. And also, um, you know, I'm just working together on new customer solutions and trying to get ahead of the curve. We're building a brand new DSP. And there as as a lot of people know, it's a very cluttered market. So it's helping us think out of the box to how can we differentiate ourselves? And how can we stand above the competition?

JJ 16:55

That's amazing. And I really love that you took the improv class together as a team. Yeah, right. That's my child team. I think that's so so important. And actually that, that brings me to another question I want to ask you and perspective I want to get from you is, in my experience, a lot of the trepidation of saying no, is because people, you know, myself included, think it will harm the relationship, right? It Well, if I say no to the stakeholder, they will not like me anymore, and they won't want to work with me, they'll hold it against me, right? It will hurt the relationship that I have and the trust that they have in me. And I think that's a natural thing to feel. But I've actually found that that it's the opposite, saying yes to too many things is what ends up eroding the relationship of trust, because again, we take on too much, and it just ends up kind of, we don't deliver what we should deliver. So saying no, to the to the to the wrong thing. So that we can say yes, to the right things actually ends up building relationships, in my experience, and in my perspective, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on that. Like, how, you know, how have you seen being better at this impacting relationships and trust across the team one way or the other?

Jo 18:11

I love that. Yes, it definitely and helps all of your relationships, I see it specifically in our relationships with our clients, and professionally, just as an individual, right. So I know that everyone that I work with, trust me, and when I say something is going to be due at a specific time, I'm going to work really hard with all of our teams to make sure we're meeting those deadlines and goals. But it really does strengthen your backbone, right? And it is so hard to say no, it's so hard, especially to customers, but being able to do it in a way that allows them to trust you, and understand the consequences and the cost, and really be aligned with you on on moving forward with that strategy. And that vision. It's so important. And it's so impactful. When when your customers do trust you and they know that you're working hand in hand with them together. It just it really, really helps with all of that. And I would encourage people to practice saying no, which sounds silly and it sounds kind of woowoo or a little kooky. But you know, just sit down with a friend or a colleague, and just ask each other crazy questions and practice saying no to each other. Because it really does help and it takes the sting out of it. And much like improv, much like working out. Much like keeping yourself healthy. It's all muscle memory and it's all something you need to practice and develop and, and work together on and the more you do it, the easier it is. And the more you do it, the more trust Do you get so to your point? You're exactly right. That has just been some of the benefits. It also really helps you be a better ally to right. So when you hear someone else in your team say no, being able to support that with, okay, if if someone on my product team is saying no, to me, making sure that I understand, am I clear on what the cost is? And do I have that full kind of templated story, to be able to execute that above me and communicate that above me? And I know that by being able to do that I am protecting those on my team and the people who are working with me. So just being able to do that together? It does make you be a better ally, and a better manager.

JJ 20:50

Yeah, wow, that everything you said there really resonated with me, especially that last part about being being an ally. And, you know, if if you see someone on your team saying no, to someone else, protect them and, and, you know, help them in that, right. Give them some support there. But also, if you're the one being told no, you know, really embrace that be okay with that, at least reflect on it. Right? Because in that other person's mind, there's a good reason to beings be to be saying no to you. And, you know, as leaders and as, as stakeholders and collaborators, how can we be okay with being told no. And, and I think that will ultimately help that relationship. And then ally ship, I think that's a really, really great way to say it. And, you know, I can't I can't state enough how much I love the idea of practicing saying no, and I got, I gotta say, I don't know that I've ever thought about it that way. Like you said, it may sound a little interesting. But but it's a really, really good way to do it. It's it brings up a funny story, not not work related, but although it work related, I talk a lot about conflict resolution, and I write about it in my book, because I hate conflict, so many of us do, which is really interesting that product folks are often introverted, conflict averse, you know, all of these things. But I hate it, I hate it, it physically impacts me. But I know that it's part of it. And and what I consider conflict, others consider nothing like it doesn't even you know, impact them. And so I was having a conversation with my wife the other day, who does not in any way. Worry about conflict. I always say she's the quintessential New Yorker, like complete doesn't impact her in any way, shape, or form. And I and I love that. But I'm like the complete opposite. And so we were having this conversation and physically impacts me My heart races, you know, I don't think as clearly I'm not as articulate and concise. And so I need to practice things when when something is, you know, in my mind considered a conflict, which oftentimes saying no to someone is, I need to practice it, I need to prepare for it. Where a lot of people are like, whatever, yeah, no, I'm not doing that. Are you crazy, and moving on, and, you know, doesn't even think, you know, they don't think about it again. So actually really love that idea. If it's, you know, something that, that someone needs to prepare and practice for, you know, go for it. And, you know, feel how your body reacts and then adjust to it and build those muscles. I think that's tremendous, tremendous advice there.

Jo 23:41

Yeah, I think you and I, I think it also it helps in so many different ways, not just with work, but also, you know, day to day relationships and managing your life. And as a parent, it's also something I encourage my, my daughter to do, as well. I remember my daughter being very little and us being in the car and us just practicing saying no. So that we were both comfortable with it. It it definitely is something to grow and something to practice if you can. Yeah,

JJ 24:17

I love it. Just just amazing, amazing advice. So, you know, I guess my my last question for you is, what other advice? Do you have other advice or other techniques or anything else you'd like to share? And then the second part to that question is any resources that you have found you've mentioned improv, which I think is awesome resource, if you can do it, but any other advice you'd like to share or resources that you think would would benefit folks?

Jo 24:45

Sure, absolutely. I think there's a really great book, a book that I found incredibly helpful. It's called The Art of saying no, by Damon Zahariades. I think that's how you pronounce the last name. And it's very, it's on Amazon. And he he also has a series where he has I think there's the art of saying no the art of maybe going with the flow he has, he has a couple of different books. But the art of saying no is is really, I thought his take on it was really important. And gave me a lot of tools that were incredibly helpful to me. This is kind of a crazy suggestion. And I know that most people, especially in a post COVID situation, or world would think, Oh, my goodness, this is such an out of the box idea. There's no way I would ever do this. But one of the things that I did to practice saying no was I went to a Cuddle Party, which is mind blowing, and was really, really an interesting experience. But I went with it with the mind frame of I'm going to practice saying no. So just finding like, examples or places where you know, you might be uncomfortable. It turns out Cuddle Party is actually a really great boundary workshop. And it's all about being able to say no. So it turned out to be a wonderful place where no one even batted an eye that all I was there to do was say no, and they really welcomed that and ended up being a wonderful, wonderful experience. So I'm sorry,

JJ 26:29

I have to interrupt for a second. Okay. Cuddle Party. This is awesome. And oh my god. Okay, so literally, people go to cuddle or to say no to cuddling.

Jo 26:42

At a party. Oh, yeah. So yeah, it's actually it's a boundary workshop where they spend the first 45 minutes or so teaching you how to say no, and how teaching you how to say yes, teaching you how to negotiate consent and boundaries, and all of that kind of thing, which is wonderful. And I think something I think the entire world needs. And then after that it's an open forum for just cuddling. And that can mean anything. It could mean, holding hands, it can mean i gazing, it can mean back rubs, it can mean anything, right? And so this is a really? No, yeah, it's, it was an interesting thing to do. And I'm always open to try new things and having new experiences. And it was actually something I talked to my therapist about. And they encouraged me to do it. And I went with the mindset of all I'm going to do is say no, and for the first time I went, that was exactly what I did. I just went there to say no, and practiced it. And what was so amazing. And one of the things that they say to you, or they teach you is when someone says says no to you, they're saying yes to themselves. And the perfect responses. Thank you for taking care of yourself. So what a wonderful, wonderful experience, where someone would say, Hey, Joe, Can I Can I hold your hand? Or can I sit next to you? And I would say, No, no, thank you. And they would say thank you for taking care of yourself and walk away. And just being in that environment, that that's open. And everyone kind of has that understanding of this is what you say, has definitely definitely helped me with saying no, and kind of learning the basics of that. And also understanding that when someone is saying no, to me, they're saying yes to themselves, it's probably a very personal reason. And my response back to them should be thank you for taking care of yourself. And I use it as a manager or a product manager or, you know, if I need someone to do something, and they're not able to do it, and they give me a clear, concise answer as to what the cost is or why they're saying no, in a very clear way I can say back to them. Thank you for taking care of yourself, or thank you for taking care of your product backlog. Thank you for taking care of your strategy. Thank you for taking care of your team. Wow,

JJ 29:10

that is so profound and amazing. Thank you for being a good steward of the business and the product and taking care of Wow, I love so much so good. Yeah, that's awesome. Okay, Cuddle Party. I never thought I would talk about it on the podcast. But here we are. So it's awesome. You You now have have catapulted every other guest. And you are number one. You are absolutely number one now. So that's fabulous. That is just amazing. So great book. We will. We'll absolutely link to that. We're going to link to your templates, your statements that you mentioned earlier, maybe even willing to a Cuddle Party. Who knows. But Joe McCauley, this has been an amazing conversation. Thank you so much for joining me. I've loved the conversation. I've loved learning from you. And thank you so much for sharing your perspective. In your insights,

Jo 30:00

thank you for having me. Thank you.

JJ 30:04

And thank you all for joining us on product voices. Hope to see you on the next episode.

Outro (the incomparable Sandra Segrest):30:09

Thank you for listening to product voices hosted by JJ Rorie. To find more information on our guests resources discussed during the episode or to submit a question for our q&a episodes, visit the show's website product And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform.


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