Accomplished attorney Liz Stamoulis, partner at one of Sarasota’s most prestigious law firms, has worked for years to overcome a big problem: She has an unbelievably hard time saying no. That’s especially true in "just one more" situations, from helping a partner to going above and beyond for a client.
“I say yes (so much) my colleagues bought me a no button,” Stamoulis says, speaking during a presentation at the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce’s Young Professionals Summit held Aug. 19. “If you’re not going to say no, they said, then this button will do it for you.”
Saying yes, of course, has led to some remarkable successes for Stamoulis: At 35, she oversees intellectual property law at Williams Parker, working with clients from entrepreneurs and real estate developers to authors and illustrators. Prior to Williams Parker, Stamoulis, a Stanford Law School graduate, worked for a Global 100 law firm in New York City.
Although getting to yes has its benefits, Stamoulis, a Business Observer 40 under 40 winner in 2019, has learned that a strategically-placed ‘no’ has been one of her biggest ways to grow as an attorney, colleague and a leader. Her path to learning how to say no (and dealing with being told no) was the crux of her Chamber presentation, “Overcoming the Fear of the First Step.”
Stamoulis’ presentation was followed by another a Sarasota young leader, Nate Beachy, president of Sutter’s Quality Foods. The company, with 100 employees, includes a food distribution line with eggs, meats, dairy, cheese, ice cream and more, in addition to Main Street Creamery, an ice cream shop in downtown Sarasota.
Listening to Beachy, 35, and Stamoulis, two different elements of leadership struck me. One is the future of the Sarasota business community is in good hands with energetic, empathic and entrepreneurial leaders like Beachy and Stamoulis. The second element? Growing as a leader, at any age, requires an ability to overcome the fear of the first step.
Some of the best leadership wisdom, wrapped around overcoming fear, from Beachy and Stamoulis includes the following nuggets:
Just do it: Stamoulis has learned saying no shouldn’t be drawn out. And just let the person know why without a bunch of qualifiers. “Once you decide to say no,” she says, “be polite, be honest, be upfront. There’s no need to lie about it.”
Get to yes: Just like learning how to say no was a process, Stamoulis says asking for something at work — from negotiating a raise to suggesting a more efficient way of using new technologies — has also been a learning curve to become a better leader. For one, there’s the fear of hearing no, of being rejected. And, adds Stamoulis, there’s fear of being judged as not being a team player.
Stamoulis has learned to be strategic about it. She advises others to do their research, come prepared and tell your bosses why the idea or plan would benefit both yourself and the organization. Timing is important, too. “I don’t want it to be something that’s just a drive-by, passing somebody in the hallway,” she says. “I want to know the when, where and how.”
More advice: Be patient. “Don’t expect an answer right away,” she says. “You are planting a seed.”
Link together: Beachy offers some simple advice for young aspiring leaders, something I often share with Business Observer reporters: When you see or hear about someone doing something cool, interesting or just a person you want to get to know better, reach out. Beachy does that on LinkedIn frequently, and the subsequent meetings have delivered some valuable insight and advice on how he could be a better leader and entrepreneur. “Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there,” he says. “These are micro steps you need to take to set up the big steps.”
Get ready: It’s OK, Beachy says, even expected, to not be 100% ready for the next big thing, like starting a business or a big promotion. Make up for that gap with self-confidence. Not being cocky or arrogant — it’s important, Beachy says, to know there are things you don’t know. But self-confidence in knowing you are “resourceful, you solve problems, you overcome obstacles.”
Push back: Beyond self-confidence, he says, is learning how to suppress the anxiety that says you aren’t good enough. Doing that, Beachy says, has made him a better leader. “When your level of fear is equal to your level of conviction, that will produce indecision in your life,” Beachy says. “You have to allow the fear to take a backseat.”
Motivating mission: During the early days of the pandemic, Beachy had a major crisis on his hands with a line of credit issue with his bank. It left him scrambling four days before payroll. Yet he says he didn’t let fear derail him from his main mission: Solve it quickly. He did, and more than a year later he keeps a screenshot of the email from the banker that led to the issues in his phone. It reminds him that he can do it. “When you overcome fear,” he says, “keep that memory close.”
Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.