Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion

How rejection made me a better employee (27 years later)

April 4, 2015, 3:00 PM UTC
Courtesy of Wiseman Group

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How should every successful woman deal with rejection? is written by Liz Wiseman, president of Wiseman Group.

Let’s face it; no one likes rejection. Rejection is synonymous with refusal, spurning, and elimination, all of which make us feel nervous, uncomfortable, and defeated – like a reject. And it’s easy to panic in the face of rejection, but when we panic we don’t think clearly and rejection spurs a shut down rather than a learning opportunity.

When someone’s clothes catch on fire running around only makes it worse, right? We were all taught to “stop, drop, and roll.” Likewise, when we find ourselves burning from rejection’s sting, we only make it worse when we flee fast — instead we need to stop, listen, and learn. We need to slow down, look rejection in the eye, and inhale deeply of its lessons. Feedback often speaks softly, so we have to quiet our ego to be able to hear.

When I graduated from business school, I set my sights on a job in management training and consulting. I contacted Zenger-Miller, one of the premier providers of management development at the time, and managed to secure a phone interview with their president, Ed Musselwhite. Ed listened in delight at my interest in working for their company as a management trainer, but then declined me on the spot. He suggested I first get experience in management before I tried to teach someone else. I listened in disappointment as my dream job vanished. It would have been easy to just thank him for his time and be done with it–dismissing the rejection as shortsightedness. Instead, I asked as many questions as he would indulge and listened carefully, looking for clues on how to successfully navigate this career path.

I ended up taking a job with a rapidly growing software company (Oracle) instead. It wasn’t the job I really wanted, but it turned out to be just the job I needed. After just one year of teaching programming, I was thrown into management and asked to lead the training department. Going into management at such a young age felt premature (and I really wanted to be a management trainer not a manager of training), but I recalled Ed’s rejection and counsel, so I jumped in. Over the next 16 years, I was given a progressively larger series of management challenges and grew to love leading teams. When I finally left Oracle, it was to do what I had hoped to do 17 years earlier – teach leadership. But now, I actually had something to offer as a management researcher and educator.

I now teach leadership to executives and emerging leaders all around the world. Interestingly, the feedback I hear most often is, “You really understand the reality of the corporate world, and it shows in how you teach.” But this only happened because I used my rejection as a learning opportunity early in my career.

Just the other day, I was speaking at a conference and noticed Jack Zenger (the leadership author and founder of Zenger-Miller, the company that rejected me 27 years earlier) was in the room. I couldn’t resist sharing with the group how I was rejected by Ed Musselwhite after graduating business school. When I finished, Jack–with a twinkle in his eye–handed me a note that said the following:

To: Liz Wiseman

I do hereby seek to redress and remedy a grave mistake made by my organization more than a quarter of a century ago. I offer you a position with my now organization, salary and exact role to be negotiated.

Jack Zenger, CEO of Zenger-Miller

The “job offer” was particularly sweet because it was only made possible by the bitter pill of rejection. We don’t need to go looking for rejection, but when we find it we need to hit the pause button in order to stop, listen, and learn. Instead of seeing rejection as a drag, inhale deeply, accept the feedback, and just keep moving forward.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: How should every successful woman deal with rejection?

How to bounce back from rejection at work by Kathy Collins, CMO at H&R Block.

The upside of failure by Cathy Baron Tamraz, chairwoman and CEO of Business Wire.

3 steps to overcome rejection at work by Shiza Shahid, co-founder and ambassador of Malala Fund

How to avoid overreacting at work by Mary Civiello, president of Civiello Communications Group.

Why the best leaders are defined by their failures by Alyse Nelson, CEO and co-founder of Vital Voices Global Partnership.

5 stages of rejection (and how to deal) by Beth Fisher-Yoshida, director of Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program at Columbia University.

Keep making mistakes at work? Here’s how to recover by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.

How to successfully deal with rejection at work by Beth Monaghan, principal and co-founder of InkHouse.

How to shake off rejection like Taylor Swift by Beth Comstock, senior vice president and CMO of General Electric.