A wise man once said “He who is offended when offense is not intended, is a fool; he who is offended when offense is intended, is also a fool.” I’ve had a number of experiences with various “business leaders” who, although successful financially, seemed to have limited capacity to receive criticism constructively.
One experience I had was with the CEO of a large online retailer who shall remain nameless, because I can virtually guarantee you know who it is, or you at least know his company if not the man himself. No, not Jeff Bezos.
I had the privilege of going to lunch with this man, and during the lunch he seemed very reasonable, humble, and intelligent. A few months later his company came out with a series of radio and TV commercials that were absolutely horrible, or least that was my opinion. Now if I were the CEO of a large retailer who depended on my brand and the quality of my advertising to generate sales, I’d be interested in getting feedback on such things, or if I wasn’t interested in receiving the feedback personally, I would at least be interested in someone in my company taking the feedback.
I am not a marketing genius, as far as I know, but I have an opinion on marketing and advertising and generally don’t mind sharing it. I don’t expect people to agree with me or do anything about my opinions, but I share them because I would want people to do the same for me.
And so I sent an email to this guy with some of my thoughts. I didn’t think my email came across as arrogant or proud, but evidently that’s how he took it. His response to me called me “rude” and made me out to be a prideful marketing idiot. It was obvious he was very offended.
Since then I’ve often thought “How would I have responded if I were in his shoes?” Perhaps he has had bad experiences with marketing types in the past and those experiences still cloud his perspective. But regardless, I couldn’t imagine responding as he had. At worst I would either have not responded at all, or I would have responded and said something along the lines of “Thank you for your opinions. We appreciate your feedback.” That’s what I would say to someone whose opinion I valued not at all because it was a poor opinion on the face of it. And then I would ignore what they said.
If someone’s opinion had any merit whatsoever, I would probably respond the same way, but then seriously consider what they were saying and see if there were any reason to do anything with it.
Although this guy and others I know who seem to be easily offended are successful businessmen, being a successful businessman doesn’t necessarily mean they are successful leaders, or that they are as successful as they could be. It’s only logical that a person who is unwilling to accept criticism may continue on making mistakes that could be corrected if they would open minds to consider possibilities other than those they already accept.
One leader who seems able to readily admit he’s wrong is David Neeleman of JetBlue, and that culture filters down to all levels of the company, even to the prominently placed “speak up” link on the homepage of JetBlue’s website. It is seen in JetBlue’s handling of the incident in February of 2007 when their flights were delayed and some passengers sat in planes on the tarmac for up to 10 hours and the fact they have that press release on their website. Certainly Neeleman doesn’t want to be wrong, but when he’s wrong he’s not afraid to admit it, find a solution, work it out, and move forward. What is so obviously beneficial about this attitude which appears lacking in so many business people is that it is only by admitting one has been wrong that one can fix the problem and become more successful by then being able to avoid the problem in the future. The leader who says “I know what I’m doing and I’m doing things the right way” will continue to make the same mistakes or operate at a sub-par level until his attitude changes.