Radical Candor: the most important skill for the modern boss

Let me start with this: if you’re in a position where you lead other people, no matter how big or small of a team, this is for you. If you’ve never lead anyone before and are about to start, this is for you. If you’re in no way, shape or form involved in the management of other people, this isn’t for you.

I first encountered the term “Radical Candor” in 2018 at On-Off Group, just a few months after I had started at the company. It came up during a lunch & learn session where our Phil, our boss, introduced the concept. It was a low-key attempt at getting the team to be more straight-forward in giving feedback and to lower the fear of giving feedback to problematic colleagues. The intent was good, but it wasn’t quite Radical Candor yet. I don’t think it made anyone change their behavior… but, it got me interested in the concept, which I’m thankful for.

He played us a video of Kim Scott talking at a conference, introducing the concept that she’d end up writing a book about. She tells a story about her time at Google and how she received life-changing feedback from her boss, Sheryl Sandberg, in the span of 5 minutes after a big internal pitch to Google’s leadership, which eventually changed her approach to being a boss.

This video was the first exposure I had to the concept. If you have 20 minutes, I recommend you watch it.

Radical Candor is two things: a framework and a mindset. If I had to distill it into a single sentence to sell you on the idea: achieve more as a boss by learning how to give a shit about your people. You’d be surprised at how many people suck at this.

Now that’s a very simplified way of looking at it, but it’s true… at least in my experience. A lot of bosses, leaders and managers (who I’ll collectively refer to as “bosses” from now on) are failing to lead their people because of a very simple reason: they fail to manage them as people. Not as assets or employees, but as human beings. Humans are complicated and managing them well requires more than just a business degree and business goals. In my relatively short career I’ve seen more ineffective leaders than I could care to count. I’ve worked under bosses who didn’t give a shit about me and in return I didn’t give a shit about them or the work I was assigned. Poor leadership breeds poor results. I learned this the hard way.

So when the concept was introduced to me, I was intrigued. The video was eye-opening, but more of a general overview of the concept. I had flashbacks to times I didn’t lead well or found myself out of depth when dealing with certain types of people and Radical Candor positioned itself as a way for me to overcome that. So I managed to get my hands on the book (not an easy feat when you live in the Philippines given that not a single local bookstore had the book at the time) via my girlfriend who had a business trip to Singapore. She picked up a copy for me and I dove in.

Image from Kim Scott’s Twitter account showing the main framework behind Radical Candor.
The quadrants are explained in-depth in the book.

Radical Candor is the theory that you can achieve more in an organization if you, as a boss, build personal connections with your employees. From the way you give feedback as a boss, to how you handle delicate situations when they arise, to how you handle dissent and corporate chaos – these are all places where your decisions as a leader leave lasting impact on the people around you, and the type of relationship you have with them will determine exactly what type of impact you’re leaving.

By applying Radical Candor you won’t automatically be an amazing boss, but you sure as hell will have a better chance at getting the most important things done.

Book Review…

Radical Candor is, simply put, the best book on people management that I’ve read. It’s immensely powerful in the context of business, but also goes beyond that – anyone that leads a group of others can benefit from this book. It’s the one book I wish I had read before taking on my first leadership roles at AIESEC. I believe some of the techniques the book teaches would have done wonders in uplifting the results my teams were bringing in over the 4 years.

I’m not gonna lie: there were parts of the book that were a bit painful for me to read because they very explicitly showed me specific situations that I had also encountered as a leader and clearly mishandled in hindsight. Alas, I can’t go back and change things. The book didn’t even come out until 2017 so going back in time wouldn’t help me, but I can definitely recommend others to pick it up, especially when they’re starting their first management roles, regardless of where: be it in a company, a student org, a sports team or NGO – Radical Candor can fit into any of them.

Let’s look at the book for a bit. It’s divided into 2 major parts. The first part is a collection of Kim Scott’s experiences in her time at Google, Apple and other ventures where she learned the value of Radical Candor: This isn’t a framework or idea she came up with overnight, it’s a culmination of an extremely impressive career across a variety of industries, countries and roles. She details situations she found herself in, from hiring to firing to leading small and big teams, all of which provide insight into her applying different parts of the two major frameworks that make up Radical Candor.

I found many of these stories compelling and fascinating. Aside from her talent for telling stories, Kim Scott does an amazing job of pulling back the curtains on what life and work is like at giants such as Apple and Google. There’s some very unique insight into what it’s like to work with legends such as Steve Jobs or Larry Page and what we can learn from their approach to management of people and company culture. How did Larry Page handle his own employees shouting at him? Why did Steve Jobs regularly surprise junior developers by sitting at their desk when they came back from lunch? Those are the type of things Kim Scott talks about. Those were the types of things that I was excited to learn from and the book certainly doesn’t disappoint there.

The latter part of the book is about specific techniques. The whole concept behind the book can be a bit overwhelming and what do many people do when overwhelmed? They shut down and end up not changing anything. So instead, the book contains a variety of critical tactics that any manager can bring to their teams as early as tomorrow.

This is the Get Stuff Done wheel – each part of it has techniques and anecdotes described in the books that you can use.

My favorite tactic described here has to be her insight into how to run one-on-one meetings with your direct reports. I learned more in a few pages here than I did in many years of leading young people at AIESEC. Towards the end of my time at AIESEC I would often dread one-on-one meetings: they often felt like a waste of time and would put me into a right state of anxiousness when I knew the topics I had to discuss with my direct reports weren’t pleasant.

I wish I had known these tactics back then. I wish I had been better at establishing personal relationships with my own team members. I wish I had been better at providing guidance in the face of organizational crisis. I wish I had been more candid in delivering feedback. These are all things that Kim Scott teaches in a very compelling manner without sounding like a psychiatrist or business academic.

I’m now actually excited for the next time I get to take a leadership role. I spent the better part of 3 years doing nothing but manage and lead. I became a crisis-manager and problem-solver, not a leader. Now I feel like I’m ready to lead again, and all because I read a book.
If that doesn’t make you want to buy it and read it, nothing will.

Closing Thoughts…

I often find myself struggling to relate to books about management and personal development. A lot of times, the advice seems too generic or too specific. For me, Radical Candor strikes a great balance between the two sides of the spectrum. The anecdotes are carefully chosen. The framework is easily understood, well-defined and straight-forward. It’s also honest: there are some situations where you can’t win.

Radical Candor as a mindset is powerful. It’s easy to say to “just go and build better relationships with your team” but that’s generic and not useful. The book shows you exactly how you start, whether other people have struggled and what you can do about it.

There are skills you need in business to succeed, and most of them revolve around managing yourself and other people. Radical Candor teaches you one of the best approaches to managing other people. It also touches on the risks of managing up, something many managers struggle with.
I’ve already encouraged several of my friends to pick this book up. I can’t recommend it enough, actually.

I’m still learning to be radically candid. I’m not in a role at the moment where I lead anyone, but I do have peers I can give feedback to. It’s not an overnight thing… but when you get there, it’s worth it.

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