When life gives you lemons, it doesn’t always politely drop them into your palms. Sometimes, it slings them at you.
Julie Zhuo, Leila Janah, and Brit Morin would know. As executives and founders of successful tech companies, they’re pelted with criticism regularly. Make a tough leadership decision? You’ll disappoint one favorite colleague instead of another. Launch a new feature? Your customers protest. Slip up in an interview? The press is all over it.
There’s always someone who has something to say about you when you lead, start a project, or put your voice into the world. And the more you grow, the bigger your target is.
Then leadership has nothing to do with engineering perfection to avoid criticism. You can’t hide. The question is what to do when a lemon hits you right in the solar plexus.
Women's voices are often underrepresented in professional contexts, but when they become more visible, they can be subject to extra criticism and backlash. At Designer Fund’s Women in Design: Voice and Risk event, I sat down with Zhuo, Morin, and Janah to discuss criticism, the pain, and how to make the best of it. Here are the top insights from the conversation.
When you pour your heart and soul into a project, criticism can feel like a personal attack. Brit Morin is founder and CEO of Brit + Co: they named the company after her to give the site a personality and human connection point. "As a founder, you’re getting criticism every day," she said. "And putting your name and face on the brand makes it particularly difficult."
From day one, Morin dealt with fanged Silicon Valley gossip blogs that commented on her every business move when they weren’t lampooning her personal life. Now that the company attracts 80 million monthly visitors, and is supported by nearly 100 employees and a network of content contributors, Morin is liable for her team’s actions and receives even more attention from the press and public. "My voice has extended to become a voice of many. I have to take responsibility for that and make sure what we all do is true to our brand."
The best inoculation against the criticism, according to her, is to remember what you’re working toward: "Ultimately, I built up the resilience on my own to deflect it. I realized that I love what I do. We're serving a real mission here, trying to help women and girls find their inner creativity."
Julie Zhuo, VP of Product Design at Facebook, has seen the company weather a decade of coverage and commentary. This taught her a valuable lesson: don’t listen too much to external press, which doesn’t always have context on what’s going on inside a company.
"I really trusted the press and things people write in official publications," Julie said. "But I realized that people will write good things about your company, and it’s never as good as what they’re saying. It’s also never as bad as what they’re saying."
The team working behind the scenes on a project are the ones who know the day-to-day details and the far-reaching vision behind a decision, launch, or new project. "Now, whenever I read anything, I'm so much more skeptical. If someone’s making a decision for the right reasons, then we’ll figure out if it’ll be successful down the line. Time will eventually tell."
You can’t avoid criticism, but you can control your response to it. And if you stubbornly ignore all outside input, you miss out on perspectives and windows of opportunity that help you grow. Sometimes, negative feedback holds a key to open your next door.
Leila Janah, CEO and founder of Sama Group, once received a virulent email from a man who was upset that she was creating jobs overseas while the U.S. was in a recession. The wording was harsh, to say the least. Leila tapped out a defensive, angry email back, but decided to sleep on it before sending it.
The next morning, she deleted the draft and started a new one after researching the dire unemployment statistics in the man’s home state of Ohio. He had written the email in pain, reeling from a layoff. Janah empathized and asked whether he had ideas for how Sama could help in the U.S. He responded with gratitude, and a dialogue began.
Samaschool opened in three U.S. states as a result of the conversation, and now have over 17,000 Americans enrolled in its online program. "His viewpoint challenged a lot of assumptions that I didn't even realize I had about international development," Janah said. "It also really stretched me professionally. I didn't think I had it in me to respond so graciously. It just proves that when you respond with kindness and compassion, you will often get that back."
Janah practices this reaction control by adding a pause, a mental distance, between the moment she receives criticism and her response to it. She learned this through meditation and mindfulness, even though stillness didn’t come naturally to her (a self-described high-energy person who took NoDoz in high school). "My dad and I used to roll our eyes at all this mindfulness stuff. We used to call it California fruits and nuts," she said. "But I try to meditate every day, and it has changed my life profoundly. It’s made me a better leader."
And when Janah’s team tried to get a new cosmetics line, Laxmi, into a major beauty retailer’s distribution program, their reaction to criticism was tested again. They presented a large beauty retailer with 30 different formulations of the same product, week after week, and they would flatly reject it every time.
"They had negative feedback about so many aspects of our brand and our story and our deck and our pitch and our potential customers and our merchandising units . . . pretty much everything you could name," she said.
But with each new presentation, the Laxmi team listed each bullet of feedback from the previous meeting and explained exactly how they addressed it this time. They repeated this process for eight months until Laxmi got the contract.
The beauty company told them later that thoroughly addressing negative feedback and iterating rapidly was the key to getting accepted. Companies usually spend several years applying to the retailer because they don’t improve quickly enough—or, they just get discouraged and leave. "If you want to hit the big leagues and develop for a mass audience, you have to go through those cycles to make sure you’ve crossed every ‘T’ and dotted every ‘I,’" Janah said. "You have to be resilient and keep coming back."
So when you use criticism the right way, you’ll grow to the next level of leadership. And guess what that means? You’re a bigger target for more negative feedback. (You’re welcome.)
But try to cherish it: it’s a sign you’re onto something.
Women in Design: Voice and Risk is the fifth Women in Design event hosted by Designer Fund and sponsored by Medium and Dropbox. For more insights from this event, read How to Trust Yourself: Insights from 6 Top Women Leaders in Design & Tech. If you’re a designer actively seeking new opportunities with top tech companies, like Medium and Dropbox, please tell us more about yourself here and we’ll be in touch.