How to better handle criticism is probably something we all could use a refresher course on. Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour, just got schooling from the richest teacher on the planet, Jeff Bezos. (I’m guessing Bezos waved tuition because, you know, honor among billionaires).
Plank has certainly been receiving plenty criticism of late, leading him to seek the fellow mega-entrepreneurs advice. Under Armour’s stock price nosedived 45 percent in 2017 and the company experienced its first two quarterly operating losses since becoming a public company. Wall Street analysts downgraded the stock and gave Plank scathing reviews. Plank also got into boiling hot water for publicly supporting Donald Trump, drawing fire that Under Armour was getting too political.
So Plank was certainly in need of counsel on how to handle criticism. But the advice he got from Bezos surprised him. Plank said it went against the grain of what it means to be an entrepreneur.
Bezos told Plank: “The first thing I do when I hear criticism is ask myself if they’re right.'”
As reported by the Baltimore Business Journal, Plank appreciated the advice, and admitted that it wasn’t in his nature to sit still and listen:
Think about that. Because growing up as an entrepreneur you’re out there and we’re ready to fight. If somebody says something I want to punch them and counter-punch them and I’ll show you. I’ll get it right. I’ll show you how it’s supposed to be. When you really get to the confidence of not being defensive, but the confidence to be able to listen to what people are saying and really understand that, it’s almost in contrast to being an entrepreneur.
How Plank views the advice makes a lot of sense. While I’m just two years into my journey as an entrepreneur, I have certainly already felt how difficult it is to embrace criticism. You work so hard, for so many hours, with so much blood, sweat and tears invested, riding the natural high of an autonomous lifestyle, and now somebody wants to tell you what’s not working/what to do differently?
I’d rather be on a talent show hearing from Simon Cowell than listen to someone poke at my creation.
The truth is, it really does take confidence to not be defensive.
The confidence comes into play because you know how far you’ve brought your business, all that you’ve accomplished, and you know that just because someone points out a few flaws doesn’t mean what you’ve already built isn’t something to be proud of.
When you’re a confident entrepreneur you can view the critique as much needed assistance to help you get better and to keep you from operating in an echo chamber. You might even come to welcome the criticism.
So Bezos certainly makes a great point that you have to start from a place of seeking to find truth in the criticism. But there’s an important nuance to this; one Plank would hint at later in his comments (edited for brevity): “I’m not saying 80 or 90 percent of the criticism is right, but if there is something we can take from it, we have to have to at least have the humility, patience, and maturity to realize that it could make us better.”
Of note here is Plank’s point that 80 or 90 percent of the criticism might not be right. We get into trouble as entrepreneurs (and in general) when we try to absorb all criticism and take it all to heart. Doing so can send us into a downward spiral of self-doubt.
So, I believe there’s an important asterisk to Bezos’ advice. You first have to decide who gets to criticize you (not all criticizers are created equal), then you can proceed with trying to find the truth in it all. You just can’t (and shouldn’t) take on all comers. To those that say, “But all criticism, no matter where it comes from, can be of value”, I say, if you pick the right, comprehensive list of those you’ll accept/consider criticism from, you won’t miss a single, informed, on-point piece of potentially helpful critique.
Bottom line, I hope this article helps you get thicker Under Armour (see what I did there) and get more comfortable with criticism. Let it make you better, not bitter.