Radical Candor by Kim Scott is a timely reminder of the importance of empathy and humility in a world that’s more connected than ever. It’s a more human way of communication that puts employees front and center. It’s about empowering them to flourish instead of holding them back.
Ultimately, much of what Scott talks about seems like common sense, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to learn here.
Scott is clearly talking from a place of experience, and she’s not afraid to talk about her failures as well as her successes if she knows it’s going to help someone. We learn more from failure than success, a lesson that Scott learned from Sheryl Sandberg. In fact, Scott’s advice is invaluable, distilled from an impressive career that looks set to continue for the decades to come.
So, if you’re ready to create a more honest and open workplace, one in which people are empowered to be themselves and to make the changes that they want to see, look no further. The old days are over, and the workplace of the future will be authentic, collaborative and a reflection of the people who work there. And that’s what radical candor is all about.
Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing Your Humanity is about exactly what it sounds like. Kim Scott led AdSense, YouTube, and Doubleclick Online Sales and Operations at Google before joining Apple to teach leadership. She’s also coached at Dropbox, Qualtrics, and Twitter and worked as a senior policy advisor at the FCC.
Scott has also received an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from Princeton. On top of that, she’s also written three novels, which makes a lot of sense when you read her non-fiction book. She clearly has a gift for the written word, and you could argue that much of Radical Candor is anecdotal as opposed to scientific. That’s because Scott knows the value of a well-told story, and she uses tales of her time in Silicon Valley to bring her advice to life.
If you get the chance, be sure to give the audiobook a try. It’s read by the author, and she does a great job of infusing it with both her personality and her passion for the subject. In the meantime, let’s take a look at what Kim Scott has to teach us.
Be a Kickass Boss without Losing Your Humanity
We’ve all had terrible bosses. In one case, Kim Scott had a boss who thought that ridiculing people was a good way to motivate them. When she confronted him, he told her “not to worry her pretty little head”. That’s what led to the creation of her company, Juice Software.
The problem that she soon encountered was that by trying to create a harmonious atmosphere at the company, Scott realized that she wasn’t doing a good job of disciplining and firing people. She tells the story of when she was first starting out and they didn’t have enough resources to carry any slack. One employee simply couldn’t perform at the standard that they required of him, but Scott didn’t want to discipline him because she liked him. In the end, though, she realized that she risked losing her entire team if she didn’t cut the dead weight.
“Your relationships are core to your job,” Scott explains. “But there’s a world of difference between autonomy and neglect.” The idea of radical candor comes from what Scott believes is the perfect approach. Managers and employees have a responsibility to provide ongoing feedback and to do what’s best for the company. She also reminds us that if a skilled engineer doesn’t like his manager, he’s going to leave the company. There’s no shortage of demand out there.
Boss vs. Manager vs. Leader
We tend to use these three terms differently, but Scott argues that they’re much the same thing. She prefers to use the word “boss” because a good boss should both manage and lead. They can do this by providing guidance and feedback, but Scott says that it’s not all about business. Good managers can’t just tell people when their work isn’t up to scratch. They need to “give a damn” and go out of their way to help people.
The need to keep it professional can hold us back until “no one feels comfortable being who they really are at work”. That’s why Scott argues we need to “bring our own selves to work”. That’s what radical candor is all about: it’s a type of authenticity that can’t be faked.
When it comes to praising and criticizing people, Scott explains that the radically candid way relies on being specific. Don’t tell people that you like their work – tell them why you like it and what it is that makes it great. When it comes to criticism, she says that if you don’t take the time to show someone that you care about them, you come across as obnoxiously aggressive.
Motivating your people
It’s your job as a leader to rethink ambition and to understand how each person’s job role ties in with their life goals. People need to be given challenges and the room they need to grow, otherwise, they’ll rise up through the ranks until they arrive in a job they don’t enjoy. Then they’ll get stuck, start to resent their role and eventually move elsewhere.
That said, Scott also says that she’s made the mistake of trying to force people to develop themselves. Not everybody wants or is ready to take their career to the next step, and trying to force it can have the unintended side effect of pushing them away. On the other end of the spectrum, Scott also cautions against just leaving best-performing staff because “they don’t need any help”. “Ignore these people,” she explains, “and you won’t be managing.”
And when the worst comes to the worst, you need to be prepared to let people go. “When somebody is performing poorly and, having received clear communication about the nature of the problem, is showing no signs of improvement, you must fire that person,” Scott explains. “How you do it goes a long way to defining your long-term success as a boss because it sends a clear signal to everyone on your team whether or not you truly care about people for more than what they can do for you on the job.”
Telling people what to do doesn’t work
“The ultimate goal of radical candor is to achieve collaboratively what you could never achieve individually,” Scott explains. She points to Apple’s Jonny Ive, who says that the key to being a good manager is to let the quiet people speak. Management isn’t about dishing out orders, but rather about empowering people to do what they do best without resorting to micromanagement.
Then there’s Steve Jobs. “Steve didn’t just challenge others,” Scott says. “He insisted that they challenged him back. Obviously, this approach only works if people are confident enough to rise to the challenge.” It worked with Jobs because he was a strong leader and he had the personality to pull it off, but the same could be true in different situations and you don’t have to copy Steve’s style to make it work. The key is to be the kind of leader who empowers their staff to say what they really think while encouraging people who disagree to make their voices heard.
Telling people what to do also doesn’t work because the whole point of hiring subject matter experts is to allow them to use their expertise to guide the company in the right direction. Instead, it’s your responsibility to find and to highlight problems, either with your existing product/service or problems with the world that you can solve with your offering. Then you can empower a team of employees to solve the problem, but make sure that you clearly communicate what’s being expected of them.
“Kickass bosses often do not decide themselves but rather create a clear decision-making process that empowers people closest to the facts to make as many decisions as possible,” Scott says. “Not only does that result in better decisions but also it improves morale.” It falls to you as the boss to be the decider, but only if there is a deadlock and people can’t pick the best course of action without you.
Creating an obligation to dissent
Scott once interned at McKinsey, and what struck her most was their “obligation to dissent”. “If everyone around the table agreed,” Scott explained, “that was a red flag.” She suggests that if your people are arguing for one solution, you should encourage them to try arguing for another one. This can help people to see things from a different point of view and to encourage understanding. “I recommend setting up a weekly big debate meeting,” Scott says. “At my staff meeting, we identify the most important debate each week and who needs to be involved.”
“A boss’s job is often to keep the debate going,” Scott says, “rather than to resolve it with a decision. It’s the debates at work that help individuals grow and help the team work better collectively to come up with the best answer.” Of course, she isn’t saying that we should all complain about things for the sake of it. Rather, the goal is to encourage creative thinking and the sharing of information, even when it seems as though that information is obvious. “Sometimes the logic may seem self-evident to you so you fail to share it with others,” Scott says. “When you know something deeply, it’s hard to remember that others don’t.”
Scott also reminds us of the importance of humility as leaders. “In order to be a good partner to the people on your team,” she says, “and in order to keep the ‘get stuff done’ wheel spinning efficiently, you need to stay connected to the actual work being done, not just by observing others executing but by executing yourself. If you become a conductor, you need to keep playing your instrument. If you become a sales manager, you need to keep going on sales calls yourself. If you manage a team of plumbers, fix some faucets.”
When Scott was at business school, she was taught that her job as a manager was to maximize shareholder value. “In life,” Scott explains, “I learned that too much emphasis on shareholder value actually destroys value, as well as morale. Instead, I learned to focus first on staying centered myself so that I could build real relationships with each of the people who work for me. Only when I was centered and my relationships were strong could I fulfill my responsibilities as a manager to guide my team to the best results.”
The idea here is that you can’t care about other people unless you first care for yourself. Once you’re centered and bringing your best self to work, Scott says that your role as a manager is to provide your team with the stability and the freedom that they need to become centered themselves. Another reason why it’s a good idea to get to know employees on a personal level is that their home lives can have a huge impact on their work lives. Help them to be the best version of themselves that they can be while walking the fine line between respecting people’s boundaries and encouraging them to improve themselves.
“There’s not one right place for these boundaries to be,” Scott says. “Or one way to push them open a little more. You’ll need to negotiate boundaries differently with each person you work with and you’ve got to respect these boundaries while also getting to know the people you work with over time, in order to build the best relationships of your career.“
The good news is that by focusing on authenticity and trust – and on radical candor – you can get off to a solid start.