Notes on Radical Candor

I recently read Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott as part of leadership training that we are…

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I recently read Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott as part of leadership training that we are doing at Faire. I’m not normally a fan of recently-written business books but I was really impressed by Radical Candor. The advice is highly relevant to anyone looking to build and lead effective teams using a foundation of meaningful relationships and direct communication. Below are some of my notes from the book.

Introduction

  • You can draw a straight line from lack of guidance to a dysfunctional team that gets poor results.

  • At Apple, as at Google, a boss’s ability to achieve results had a lot more to do with listening and seeking to understand than it did with telling people what to do; more to do with debating than directing; more to do with pushing people to decide than with being the decider; more to do with persuading than with giving orders; more to do with learning than with knowing.

Build Radically Candid Relationships: Bringing your whole self to work

  • Emotional labor is not just part of the job; it’s the key to being a good boss. (page 5)

  • Guidance, team, and results: these are the responsibilities of any boss. (page 7)

  • Very few people focus first on the central difficulty of management that Ryan hit on: establishing a trusting relationship with each person who reports directly to you. (page 7)

  • Your ability to build trusting, human connections with the people who report directly to you will determine the quality of everything that follows. (page 8)

  • “Radical Candor” is what happens when you put “Care Personally” and “Challenge Directly” together. (page 9)

  • Just remember that being a boss is a job, not a value judgment. (page 12)

  • Once people know what it feels like to have a good boss, it’s more natural for them to want to be a good boss. (page 13)

  • “The source of everything respectable in man either as an intellectual or as a moral being [is] that his errors are corrigible. He is capable of rectifying his mistakes, by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted.” — John Stuart Mill(page 14)

  • A good rule of thumb for any relationship is to leave three unimportant things unsaid each day. (page 16)

Get, Give, and Encourage Guidance: Creating a culture of open communication

  • The “asshole or incompetent” thing is a false dichotomy (page 25)

  • Blaming people’s internal essence rather than their external behavior leaves no room for change. (page 26)

  • Ruinous Empathy is responsible for the vast majority of management mistakes I’ve seen in my career. (page 32)

  • When giving praise, investigate until you really understand who did what and why it was so great. Be as specific and thorough with praise as with criticism. Go deep into the details. (page 33)

  • Start by asking for criticism, not by giving it. (page 34)

  • Notice that Jobs catches himself. He’s careful not to personalize the criticism — not to say “when they’re not good enough.” Instead, he says “when their work isn’t good enough.” It’s an important distinction. (page 37)

  • How do you criticize without discouraging the person? First, as I described in Chapter One, focus on your relationship. Also, as I described in the previous two sections: ask for criticism before giving it, and offer more praise than criticism. Be humble, helpful, offer guidance in person and immediately, praise in public, criticize in private, and don’t personalize. Make it clear that the problem is not due to some unfixable personality flaw. Share stories when you’ve been criticized for something similar. (page 38)

Understand What Motivates Each Person on Your Team: Helping people take a step in the direction of their dreams

  • The most important thing you can do for your team collectively is to understand what growth trajectory each person wants to be on at a given time and whether that matches the needs and opportunities of the team. (page 48)

  • A wise man once told me, “Only about five percent of people have a real vocation in life, and they confuse the hell out of the rest of us.” (page 51)

  • Your job is not to provide purpose but instead to get to know each of your direct reports well enough to understand how each one derives meaning from their work. (page 51)

  • Some management bloviators will advise you simply to hire the right people and then leave them alone. Dick Costolo, Twitter’s CEO from 2010–2015, explained succinctly how crazy this advice is. “That’s like saying, to have a good marriage, marry the right person and then avoid spending any time with them. Ridiculous, right?” he exclaimed. “Imagine if I went home and told my wife, ‘I don’t want to micromanage you, so I’m not going to spend any time with you or the kids this year.’” (page 52)

  • Advice from Ecclesiastes: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” (page 61)

  • Retaining a bad boss is especially damaging because bad bosses have such a negative impact on the people who report to them. This is the opposite of managerial leverage. (page 70)

  • Be careful not to label people as “high performers.” Everybody has an off quarter occasionally. (page 74)

Drive Results Collaboratively: Telling people what to do doesn’t work

  • “I didn’t say Steve is always right. I said he always gets it right. Like anyone, he is wrong sometimes, but he insists, and not gently either, that people tell him when he’s wrong, so he always gets it right in the end.” (page 79)

  • One colleague told me about a time he’d argued with Steve but eventually backed down, even though he wasn’t convinced by Steve’s reasoning. When events subsequently proved my colleague right, Steve marched into his office and started yelling. “But this was your idea,” said my colleague. “Yes, and it was your job to convince me I was wrong,” Steve replied, “and you failed!” (page 80)

  • The process, which I call the “Get Stuff Done” (GSD) wheel, is relatively straightforward. But the key, often ignored by people who think of themselves as “Get Stuff Done” people, is to avoid the impulse to dive right in, as I did in the example that begins this chapter. Instead, you have to first lay the groundwork for collaboration. (page 81)

  • Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, once said at an Apple University class that a manager’s most important role is to “give the quiet ones a voice.” I love this. Google CEO Eric Schmidt took the opposite approach, urging people to “Be loud!” I love this, too. The two leaders took different approaches to ensure that everyone was heard. (page 82)

  • Loud listening — stating a point of view strongly — offers a quick way to expose opposing points of view or flaws in reasoning. It also prevents people from wasting a lot of time trying to figure out what the boss thinks. Assuming that you are surrounded with people who don’t hesitate to challenge what you say, stating it clearly can be the fastest way to get to the best answer. (page 85)

  • The essence of making an idea clear requires a deep understanding not only of the idea but also of the person to whom one is explaining the idea. (page 93)

  • One of the reasons that people find debate stressful or annoying is that often half the room expects a decision at the end of the meeting and the other half wants to keep arguing in a follow-up meeting. One way to avoid this tension is to separate debate meetings and decision meetings. (page 96)

Part II: Tools & Techniques

  • Even though relationships don’t scale, culture does. (page 111)

Relationships: An approach to establishing trust with your direct reports

  • Only when I was centered and my relationships were strong could I fulfill my responsibilities as a manager to guide my team to achieve the best results. Shareholder value is the result. It’s not at the core, though. (page 113)

  • You can’t give a damn about others if you don’t take care of yourself. (page 115)

  • Be relentlessly insistent on bringing your fullest and best self to work — and taking it back home again. Don’t think of it as work-life balance, some kind of zero-sum game where anything you put into your work robs your life and anything you put into your life robs your work. Instead, think of it as work-life integration. (page 115)

  • Put the things you need to do for yourself on your calendar, just as you would an important meeting. If you are having trouble leaving the office in time to get home for dinner, put your commute time in your calendar. Pretend you have a train to catch. (page 116)

  • Authority derives naturally from merit, not the other way around.” (page 116)

  • The important thing to do is to stay in touch with your personal values and to demonstrate them in how you manage your team, not by writing down things like “hard work,” “honesty,” and “innovation” on a piece of paper. Live your values. Don’t try to list them like an HR exercise from the show The Office. (page 121)

  • I’ve had several colleagues who’ve complained that they have to keep their conservative political views to themselves or face ostracism here in San Francisco. (page 122)

  • The fastest path to artificial relationships at work, and to the gravitational pull of organizational mediocrity, is to insist that everyone have the same worldview before building relationships with them. (page 122)

  • If you have a truly terrible emotional upset in your life, stay home for a day. You don’t want to spread it around any more than you’d want to spread a bad virus around the office, and emotions are just as contagious as germs. Mental-health days should be taken more seriously than they are. (page 125)

Guidance: Ideas for getting/giving/encouraging praise & criticism

  • Guidance is the “atomic building block” of management, but it is profoundly uncomfortable for most people. (page 129)

  • You are the exception to the “criticize in private” rule of thumb. (page 131)

  • The bigger the team, the more leverage you get out of reacting well to criticism in public. (page 131)

  • “Is there anything I could do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?” (page 132)

  • Listen with the intent to understand, not to respond. (page 133)

  • Situation, behavior, and impact applies to praise as well as to criticism. Praise can feel just as arrogant as criticism. When somebody says, “You’re a genius,” it begs a question: “Who are you to judge my intelligence?” When somebody says, “I’m so proud of you!” it’s natural to think, “Who are you to be proud of me?” Better to say, “In your presentation at this morning’s meeting (situation), the way you talked about our decision to diversify (behavior) was persuasive because you showed everyone you’d heard the other point of view (impact).” (page 138)

  • Don’t “save up” guidance for a 1:1 or a performance review. (page 142)

  • Andy Grove had a mantra at Intel that we borrowed to describe leadership at Apple: Listen, Challenge, Commit. (page 153)

  • This didn’t start out as a gender issue. The initial problem was that this young person, like so many others, was unused to criticism — a phenomenon explored well in an Atlantic article titled “The Coddling of the American Mind.” But the professor’s colleagues — some of them well-meaning men trying to be sensitive to gender issues — allowed the rift to become a gender question. Suddenly, telling a student majoring in physics that she needed to learn the quadratic equation became a risky thing for professors at this institution to do. (Page 154)

  • This scenario illustrates an anti-guidance trend that’s creating a perfect storm in higher education — and blowing through all companies where millennials are working today. But if teachers and bosses become wary of exposing students or employees to facts that might be perceived as “threatening” or “disturbing” due to their fear of reprisals, both schools and companies are in trouble. Combine that with gender politics, and learning takes a real hit. Will the tone of the current “campus conversation” (or lack thereof) backfire and reduce mentorship and learning for women? (page 154)

  • It’s that the pervasive atmosphere of anxiety around gender issues has everybody walking on eggshells and avoiding important truths. (page 155)

  • That is why GE — which pretty much invented performance reviews — and a number of other companies are abolishing them. (page 161)

  • One of the most important ways to create an environment in which Radical Candor trumps political BS is to never let one person on your team talk to you about another behind their back. It feels like you’re being empathetic to listen, but actually, you’re just stirring the political pot. (page 165)

  • Of course, that approach won’t work everywhere. Apple, for example, was a “measure twice, cut once” kind of place, very different from Google’s “launch and iterate” ethos. (page 166)

  • Imagine if there were a similar Medical Safety Reporting System. What if, instead of suing doctors who made honest mistakes we gave them immunity, collected and shared the information, and came up with ways to help other doctors avoid making the same mistakes? If we made it safer for doctors to give each other guidance, and to learn from each other’s mistakes, the impact could be enormous. (page 167)

Team: Techniques for avoiding boredom and burnout

  • Realizing he’d come up with a good methodology for having career conversations, Russ held an off-site and taught his managers how to talk to their direct reports not just about their career goals or how to get promoted but also about their life stories and dreams. He taught every manager on his team to have a succession of three forty-five-minute conversations with each direct report over the course of three to six weeks. (page 177)

  • In general, one would expect there to be the same distribution of excellent performance throughout, as well as a higher ratio of more senior people on a gradual growth trajectory and a higher ratio of more junior people on a steep growth trajectory. In practice, most management teams respond in a reverse manner — a greater percentage of senior rather than junior people get put in the superstar box. (page 185)

  • I know, you’re busy and you don’t have time to write everything down. Here’s a tip: schedule an hour, interview for forty-five minutes, and write for fifteen. This arrangement will force you to have a more focused interview and to make a better recommendation about whom to hire. (page 188)

  • In general, a bias toward no is useful when hiring. (page 189)

  • At companies where it’s too easy to fire people, bad/unfair firing decisions get made, with the result that even people who are great at their jobs start to get spooked. When people feel that kind of fear, they start to avoid taking risks. They learn less, they grow less, they innovate less, they become less than they could be. This is the opposite of personal growth management. (page 189)

  • Announcing promotions breeds unhealthy competition for the wrong things: documentation of status rather than the development of skill. (page 195)

Results: Things you can do to get stuff done together — faster

  • No matter what fires erupt in your day, do not cancel your 1:1s. (page 203)

  • Literally, every CEO, middle manager, and first-time manager I have ever worked with has struggled to figure out how to run a productive staff meeting with their direct reports. (page 206)

  • My advice is that you schedule in some think time, and hold that think time sacred. (page 210)

  • “Big debate” meetings are reserved for debate, but not decisions, on major issues facing the team. (page 210)

  • The product of “big decision” meetings is a careful summary of the meeting distributed to all relevant parties. (page 213)

  • If you have veto power, the decider should send the decision to you to approve or disapprove before the notes go out more broadly. Use this power sparingly, though, or the meetings will become meaningless. (page 213)

  • Friends of mine who worked at Yahoo! and AOL have told me that when things were going well, whole teams would get richly rewarded; but when they started going badly, nobody had any idea what to do. They’d just been measuring the results, and they didn’t understand what had been driving them or what to do when the results turned bad. (page 217)

  • Try taking a page out of Dick’s book. Schedule an hour a week of walking-around time. (page 219)

  • In some ways, becoming a boss is like getting arrested. Everything you say or do can and will be used against you. (page 221)

  • When you pay attention to seemingly small details, it can have a big impact on persuading people that your culture is worth understanding and adapting to. (page 223)