NDP Book Shelf: Radical Candor

Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing your Humanity by Kim Scott

A book review by Christy Ratcliff , CPA, CVA

I’ll start this by saying I am not a “self-help” book kind of a girl.  I’m not against self-improvement, but generally find that most self help books tell me recycled ideas I have heard before or give advice on examples of how to implement said advice that are not applicable to what’s going on in my “world”.  I still try, but don’t usually finish the book, so I was surprised how much I enjoyed Radical Candor.

In, Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing your Humanity, the author Kim Scott, coaches the concept that to be a successful boss you must have the ability to challenge directly at the same time you care personally… That as a good boss it’s important to manage the emotional labor of your team and role. She chooses to use the term “boss” not “manager“ or “leader” as she feels like the later two have too much weight and expectation. Kim says their role is to guide a team to achieve results. It sounds so simple, huh? As with most things in life, she stresses that relationships (both yours with your team, their relationships with each other and your team’s relationship with the overall organization) are what drive your results and it’s your role to guide and build those relationships.

Her solution to achieving these strong relationships is based on Radical Candor.  Radical – meaning say what you really think, and candor – meaning conveying your view and expecting others to communicate theirs (with a touch of humbleness). It’s not a “here is my truth and it is THE truth,” but a willingness to say what you mean and also listen openly.  There are two dimensions of achieving Radical Candor: Care Personally and Challenge Directly.

Care Personally

There are so many good examples in this book of both how to do this and how not to do this.  I first read this and thought, “of course I “care personally””! But, upon further review, I realized that Kim is conveying that caring personally is more than liking the person individually and hoping they do well – it is caring enough to help them grow by doing the hard stuff and by giving them the tools to succeed to be their best self.  By caring enough to tell them when they aren’t meeting their potential, criticizing correctly when they don’t meet standards, praising effectively and by also allowing others to see your struggles you can develop strong bonds of trust.  She also highlighted that by ignoring the “keep it professional” motto we often hear in business we can allow ourselves to treat each other like humans, not robot professionals.  Building the relationship of trust amongst your team is critical.

Challenge Directly

I walked away from this book knowing that Challenging Directly was likely my area of improvement – it requires hard conversations, saying no and accepting that if no one is ever mad at you, you probably aren’t challenging your team enough.  As a southern raised lady, the old adage, “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything”, was one I was taught since childhood, but it doesn’t work here.  This book promotes the complete opposite.  It encourages you to say the hard things, but stresses the importance of saying them the right way.  The key, Kim says, is to understand the person so you can understand the emotion that may result from challenging directly. She also encourages you to challenge directly and then offer solutions. So many bosses say “don’t take it personally” when giving feedback and criticism… But of course, it feels personal!  Kim says removing that term from your vocabulary (and mindset) is key.

Kim relays that as a boss, you must challenge directly and care personally in your criticism as well as your praise.  Give specific, meaningful and sincere feedback when you praise.  What did they do, why do you admire it and care personally? “Good job!” doesn’t do the job and often falls flat on the receiver’s ear.

Now, I won’t try to provide all the examples and little nuggets of wisdom in this book in this review – but trust me this book is full of them.  As a leader of teams at Google, Apple and other giants in Silicon Valley, Kim has worked with Sheryl Sandberg, Larry Page and other “great bosses”.  She attempts (I think successfully) to provide examples of how to have Radical Candor correctly – and how she and others have failed. She acknowledges that being radically candid is hard and everyone messes up – a sentiment I appreciate!

The book says while the goal is to achieve Radical Candor you can often fall into three other types of personalities in your criticism and praise – from either challenging too directly (or not enough) or not truly caring personal.

Ruinous Empathy: A desire to lessen the pain or not hurt someone often times can hurt them more in the long run.  Kim says this one is where most managers make mistakes and stresses that letting poor performance slide or filling your team with false “atta boys” is sometimes worse than the other extremes.

Manipulative Sincerity: When you don’t care enough to challenge directly. When you are too worried about being liked or the political environment sets you up to be fake.  My favorite quote summing up this is, “Give a damn about the people you challenge.  Worrying about whether or not they give a damn about you is not ‘caring personally’ about them”.

Obnoxious Aggression: This is criticizing someone without showing you care. The jerk.  As Kim said, “The one who can sometimes get great results in the short-term but leaves a trail of dead bodies in [their] wake.”

I can think back on my relatively short career thus far and see a whole host of people who fit these personality types. I can also think of a few who were Radically Candid – they are the ones whom I enjoyed working for the most and who helped me grow.  For most of us, our professional life bleeds into our personal life – as a boss, remembering that a member of your team who performs poorly does not reflect on them personally but just means they have made a mistake professionally. As bosses, we often, unintentionally, fail to separate someone personally from their work. This book teaches you how to care personally and challenge directly without confusing the person with the tasks and product they create (or fail to create).  Through words and actions we can grow both our teams and ourselves by not avoiding the hard conversations.

Here are a few of my favorite takeaways from the book:

  • Really letting “It’s not mean, it’s clear” soak in – our culture has created the thought that being blunt is rude.Factual statements without caveats can come across as harsh.  But really, being clear in your thoughts and telling people directly what you think without room for there own interpretation or your fluff can be highly effective.
  • Own up to your own mistakes and recognize your peers. Kim details a team activity of “Whoops the Monkey & the Killer Whale”. In this team activity, team members nominate someone who really did something great to get the “Killer Whale” at the team meetings and then, most importantly, team members nominate himself or herself for something they screwed up.  Owning up to our mistakes publicly can foster trust and be just as encouraging as praising someone for their success.
  • Giving yourself the capacity to care personally and challenge directly sometimes requires a specific plan. If you are anything like me, your days are busy. It feels like it is time to go home before you can even finish a cup of coffee.  Kim points out that making 1:1s with your team a priority in your schedule AND making time for yourself without distraction is critical to caring personally.  She suggests a structured set of meetings called the “Get Stuff Done (GSD)” wheel to help develop ideas and produce results. From “1:1s” to “Big Debate” meetings to “No Meeting Time”, some of these ideas aren’t novel, but combining them in the mindset of Radical Candor was really new to me.
  • Rockstars Vs.Superstars: Kim highlighted that there are two types of stars in every environment, and both are critical. There will be those on your team who have a desire to grow and excel to the next level. They have a steep growth trajectory. Those are the superstars. There will also be the team members who are solid at what they do, excel in their position and grow, but have no desire to climb the ladder. Those are rockstars.  Some discount the rockstars as not wanting to grow or not being ambitious. Kim says she learned this is a critical flaw to the team approach. A team needs both stability and growth to thrive, and both are important, critical roles in your team.

These are only a few of the many gems I gathered while reading. I am a fan, and if you know me personally, I have told you to read this book! I now keep this book on my desk.  It’s filled with flags and markings.  Not so much as a to-do list or implementation guide (although it could be), but as a reminder to be Radically Candid. Each day we are faced with so many instances where we can choose to have Radical Candor or we can choose another way.  I know I won’t succeed each time, but the book sits as a reminder to attempt to do so and I hope to succeed.  Building strong relationships of trust, growing a successful team and achieving results (in whatever you are striving for) is often not an easy, linear task. Whether your goals are owning and running a successful dental practice, running a parent organization at your child’s school or strengthening your personal relationship with your spouse or best friend, having Radical Candor is applicable in all of these! I know my goals, and I know that after reading this book, I have a few more tools in my belt to keep striving to achieve those.  Happy Reading!