A few years ago, the ad agency where I work hired a female junior writer. I was thrilled, not just because I had someone to dump all my busy work on (though the appeal of that cannot be understated), but also because managing another writer was a new and unchartered territory for me.
Amy was twenty-four and smart. A little reserved, but, as a fellow introvert, I wasn’t about to hold that against her. Her portfolio was pretty impressive and she’d had some good internships. The two other (male) writers and I were glad to have her on board.
From the beginning, I made a point to reach out to Amy. You may have suspected that I have some slight delusions of grandeur about the impact I can make on lives of young women, something I first noticed when I was a Big Sister for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. Back then, I really thought my influence could help shape my Little Sister into Oprah, Ruth Bader Ginsgberg and Hermione Granger, all rolled into one. Now I just hope I didn’t do permanent damage by exposing her to the vulgar, tragically unfunny “Nutty Professer II: The Klumps.”
But my intentions with Amy where good. That’s gotta count for something, right? See, I remember 24 in the ad industry so clearly. You feel vulnerable all the time, trying to come up with fresh, original ideas, getting sent back to the drawing board five times, watching ten ideas die for every one that gets produced. It’s exhilarating and nerve-wracking and something you’ll experience in varying degrees your whole career. But at 24, you’re still fighting for credibility and experience. A chance to prove yourself.
Like Amy, I was good at 24. Very good. And ambitious. And ready for the world to discover my genius.
But Amy had something I never had, not once in my career: a senior, female creative on the team. We’re pretty hard to come in the ad industry, so for Amy to have someone like me watching out for her, someone to give her a glimpse of what her career could look like – whether she saw that as a template or a cautionary tale –girlfriend had it made.
Only … she didn’t exactly see it that way.
Sure, she appreciated the praise I was always made a point to give her. Like I said she was smart and talented and I was excited to give her more than just the crappy projects the senior writers didn’t want to do (though there were plenty of those too.) I made sure she got to do radio and TV and other high-profile jobs.
But if I had to push back on her work, make her dig a little deeper, she instantly went dead behind the eyes.
Are you kidding me? I invented dead behind the eyes. Back in the day … when I, too, refused to take constructive criticism.
Sigh. Totally realizing now that I might not have been the brilliant young protégé whose genius was unappreciated in her own time. Or, even if I was, constructive criticism could only make me better, right?
Luckily, over time, I’ve learned to Stop, Drop and Roll when I receive helpful feedback.
STOP defending. Amy always wanted me to understand her thinking behind a concept I pushed back on, which I appreciated. To a point. She got so caught up in defending her position that she wasn’t listening to my advice. As a manager, I want to know she’s open to direction. Yes, be passionate about your work, but know when to give up the fight. Frankly, this is something I still struggle with. It helps to remind myself that I can always learn something new and as a creative person, I can always solve the problem a different way. Challenge accepted.
DROP the attitude. Though I was always careful to tell Amy why I wanted a change, I often felt resentment rolling off her like waves. The other writers noticed it too when they sent her back to the drawing board. Sometimes, we just didn’t have the time or patience to deal with her attitude and it cost her some opportunities. I wouldn’t want my boss, much less a potential mentor, to feel that way about me. This can take an enormous amount of effort, but hide your frustration, hostility and disdain. Lady Gaga had the right idea: p-p-p-poker face.
ROLL with the punches. Figuratively speaking of course. The ad industry is rife with criticism, and the more I blog about it the more I wonder why I ever subjected my tender little heart to it. But every job and many of your relationships will involve some form of appraisal and feedback that you can either embrace or disregard. I always appreciated the bosses and teachers who pushed me the hardest, even if only in hindsight. Accept feedback and use it to make your work (and your determination) stronger. The end goal is improvement. Shouldn’t we all be open to that?
We had layoffs at our company last year and Amy got swept away in that wave. I was sad to see her go and not just because I have to do my own busy work. I was happy she trusted me enough that, when a job she was applying for gave her a test assignment, she asked for my feedback. And was totally open to it.
Maybe a really good boss, like a young, creative genius, simply can’t be appreciated in their own time. I think we can both live with that.
From Auntie Venom’s 80’s Audio Files:
How do you deal with constructive criticism? Have you been on the receiving end of any lately? Tell me about it.