When someone senior asks you to “jump”, are you the kind of person who says, “how high?” or do you start negotiating?

Depending on the situation, either response could be just what the doctor ordered… or a terrible mistake.

When you’re overeager and say “yes” to everything, you could end up taking on too much and taking on the wrong things. That could lead you to burnout, putting out mediocre work, and even relegating yourself to support roles rather than leadership roles.

On the other hand, when you negotiate on every point you’ll probably have a better lifestyle, but you could be labeled as “difficult”. And that can mean missing out on some great assignments and closing off career possibilities.

The question is: what can you do to protect your time and energy in a way that helps you advance in your career and have a great life too?

Based on my own 24-year career and my work with senior executives, here are three essential skills for succeeding in your career and having a great life too. Which would most help you?

Set Boundaries

The first skill is to set boundaries. Think of these as your own set of rules or guidelines for how much time and energy you spend on your projects or activities. For me, it’s about how long I spend working because I have a tendency to work on something for much longer than necessary.

You can further break this down into specific metrics like how many days a week you travel, not missing two family dinners in a row, or never working on the weekend.

The way I learned to set boundaries was through my department head. He was so worried about the number of hours I put in that he called me into his office one evening to say, “If you keep working like this, you’ll end up burning out and probably divorced. I want you to take your kids to school one morning a week and be home in time for dinner twice a week. Believe it or not, the firm will still operate without you.”

It took someone senior giving me permission (or rather, commanding me) to set boundaries before I finally gave myself permission. But since none of us can rely on having a wonderful boss impose those kinds of boundaries on us, it’s important to be able to give yourself permission to set boundaries.

What boundaries are you setting for yourself?

Say No

You’re going to be asked to take on many projects and tasks in your career. Some of them will be amazing opportunities, while others less so. But as an achiever, you may find it hard to say “no”. I certainly fall into that category.

The list of things that I should’ve said “no” to is long. For example, being the one to write up our task force recommendations (which never got acted on), taking on a friend’s teenage son for a summer internship (think babysitting…), and traveling all the way to Rome for one meeting as a favor to a colleague.

Were they big mistakes? Not really, and there was always a rationale for saying “yes” to each one. But taken together, they added up to a significant distraction from the truly important things that I could have been working on.

Since then, I’ve learned a new acronym: SIWYSNT, which stands for Success Is What You Say No To.

With the help of my team, I now have a decision-making filter for figuring out whether an activity is worth taking on. It includes things like whether it’s core to my mission, builds my brand, develops a new skill, builds my network, and is it going to spark joy. I’ve also adapted this for my coaching clients with good results.

How about for you? What are the things you need to say “no” to in order to be more successful?

Manage Up

Another key career skill is to know how to manage up, as in proactively manage your relationship with your boss as well as shape their perception of your work.

Do you know how to push back when someone senior makes an unreasonable request? Are you skilled at influencing outcomes? Could you anticipate needs so you can do the task on your own time rather than having to fit in with the timing dictated by others?

One of my team members had the latter skill down to a science. Brian would come by my desk in the morning (after I had my caffeine!) and ask me about client meetings coming up over the next week so he could get started on doing the prep work. This gave me a chance to plan ahead and Brian added value by making suggestions on what material we could use.

This one simple act helped Brian manage his time, helped me be more prepared for important meetings, and enhanced Brian’s reputation with me. It was a win-win.


To have a truly great career and life, it’s essential to know how to set boundaries, say “no” and manage up.

And as you become more senior and successful, these skills will only become more useful. After all, there will be more demands on your time, those senior to you will be more powerful, and the stakes will be higher.

Learning these essential skills also provides an added benefit in that they apply to your life away from work too. For example, you could set boundaries for the household tasks each family member takes responsibility for, or how much time you spend with the in-laws.

Saying “no” can easily apply to friend and family-related requests. And managing up by anticipating needs has worked well for me with my husband (and yes, it’s usually wise to treat your partner like a boss or client).

What about you?

Which of these strategies would make the biggest difference for your career and life?

Leave a comment and let me know.