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How to Keep Your Cool When You Get Harsh Feedback

Businesswoman practicing yoga in busy urban crosswalkBusinesswoman practicing yoga in busy urban crosswalk
Businesswoman practicing yoga in busy urban crosswalkJohn Lund Getty Images/Blend Images RM

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for, “What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?” is written by Tonit Calaway, vice president and chief human resources officer at BorgWarner.

I wasn’t looking for a new job when I was approached by BorgWarner’s CEO about joining the global automotive parts supplier as its head of human resources. I had ascended the ranks at Harley-Davidson and was enjoying my role as chief human resources officer with the iconic motorcycle manufacturer.

Despite several invitations from the CEO to connect, I wasn’t initially open to an extended conversation. That’s when he took the unorthodox recruitment approach of pointing out areas where I lacked experience. He acknowledged that while I was good at many things, I had never worked for a large global organization the size of BorgWarner. Likewise, he noted that I had no experience working for a company challenged with integrating acquired businesses.

Despite some initial defensiveness on my part, it didn’t take long for me to realize he was right. He offered an opportunity ripe with new and challenging experiences. I accepted the position and haven’t looked back.

I often tell this story when sharing my best bit of career advice: Never think you’re so talented or smart that you can’t make mistakes or learn new things. That’s when you’ll fall on your face. Had I turned down this job, I would have missed an amazing growth opportunity.

Admittedly, this openness to hard-to-hear constructive criticism isn’t something I’ve always possessed. It’s something I’ve had to hone over my almost three-decade career. In fact, I was fired from the first firm I worked for out of law school precisely because I didn’t take constructive criticism well.


Later as corporate counsel for Harley-Davidson, I received an interoffice memorandum from an executive about ways that I could improve my work attire by dressing more professionally. I knew I needed to do it, but it was still difficult hearing someone critique my appearance.

Since I believed this was keeping me from advancing as quickly as I would have liked, I dedicated myself to getting in physical shape and improving my wardrobe. I began studying fashion with a feverish intensity. I approached my fashion education like I would a complicated work assignment or research project. I learned everything that I could. I decided to make the criticism work for me. No one was ever going to tell me again that I didn’t dress well. I have dressed professionally ever since, though I maintain my own unique style.

While it’s still never easy to hear criticism, my attitude toward receiving it has changed over time. I’ve realized that constructive criticism can and often does help me to improve in my job. I always say that it’s at the exact moment in your career when you think you’ve got it made that you need to stop and take inventory of what you don’t have. In short, a little humility goes a long way.