"Q&A With Kim Scott"
Book: Radical Candor
Author: Kim Scott
Kim Scott is the co-founder of Radical Candor, LLC and author of Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing your Humanity, published by St Martin’s Press. Kim has been an advisor at Dropbox, Kurbo, Qualtrics, ReelGoodApp, Rolltape, Shyp, Twitter and several other Silicon Valley companies. She was a member of the faculty at Apple University and before that led AdSense, YouTube and Doubleclick Online Sales and Operations at Google.
Known for her ability to generate billions of dollars in revenue from millions of small customers while keeping her team happy and margins high, her unofficial title at Google was High Priestess of the Long Tail.
Earlier in her career, Kim worked as a senior policy advisor at the FCC, managed a pediatric clinic in Kosovo, started a diamond cutting factory in Moscow and was an analyst on the Soviet Companies Fund. The author of three novels, she is currently working on her next book, bringing the tools and philosophy of Radical Candor to gender dynamics in the workplace. She and her husband Andy Scott are parents of twins.
1. You have recently released an updated version of the bestselling book, “Radical Candor.” What can fans of the original book expect in the updated version?
The second edition of Radical Candor includes a new preface, afterword, and radically candid performance review bonus chapter. The preface clarifies some of the misunderstandings about Radical Candor that have occurred since the book was first published.
I realized that some people were using Radical Candor as an excuse to be jerks, which is actually not Radical Candor at all. It’s what I call Obnoxious Aggression. The second edition makes it clear that Radical Candor is NOT brutal honesty. It is based in kindness and clarity and can also be called Compassionate Candor.
In addition, the bonus chapter discusses how performance development and performance management, while related, are not the same. Each informs the other, and it’s nearly impossible to have a successful performance management system if you forgo investing in performance development.
2. For the readers who may not have read your book, “Radical Candor,” can you explain what ‘Radical Candor’ is and where this idea came from?
This is actually kind of a funny story. My ah-ha moment, where I first conceived of the concept of Radical Candor, happened while I was walking my new golden retriever puppy, Belvedere, in New York City. I was so smitten with my new dog that I never said a harsh word to her, which resulted in the dog basically being the boss of me instead of the other way around.
One day, while we were waiting at a crosswalk, Belvedere darted into traffic and almost got hit by a car. “I can see you really love that dog,” a stranger said to me. (This is what I later realized was the cornerstone of Radical Candor, also known as Care Personally.)
“But you’re going to kill her if you don’t teach her to sit!” (This is what came to be known as Challenge Directly, which is equally as important as caring personally.)
He pointed to the ground and bellowed. “SIT!” The dog sat. “It’s not mean; it’s clear,” he explained. Because he started the conversation by acknowledging that I loved my dog, it showed me that he cared and that actually allowed me to hear what he said next.
If he had started by telling me I was going to “kill my dog,” I would have felt judged and doubt I would have listened. But I did listen. I got Belvedere (and myself) some training, and I’m happy to say my dog lived a long life.
In its simplest form, Radical Candor is saying what you mean while also giving a damn about the person you’re saying it to. It’s kind and clear, specific and sincere. The concept is simple, but it’s not always easy to practice.
3. When practicing ‘Radical Candor’ what mistakes do you see new adapters commonly making?
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they first begin practicing Radical Candor is not caring personally. Radical Candor has been parodied on the HBO show Silicon Valley and in the Dilbert comic strip. In these instances, people start conversations by saying, “In the spirit of Radical Candor,” then they deliver some sort of brutal criticism.
In order to be radically candid, you have to Care Personally before you Challenge Directly. Radical Candor does not exist without Care Personally, which is why I give people the option of using the term Compassionate Candor in the second edition of the book. This makes it clear that the compassion aspect of Radical Candor is just as important as the challenge aspect.
4. What are three (3) personality characteristics that all great CEOs should possess?
In order to not only be a successful CEO, but also a great one, you must develop good relationships with all of your direct reports. In our society, barking orders — like on the HBO show Succession — is how many CEOs behave.
It is what people expect, and unfortunately what many people accept. Even though that type of behavior may get results, behaving like a tyrant doesn’t make you a good boss. To truly be a great leader, you can’t undervalue the emotional labor of your job.
Building relationships is the key to being a good boss. This means getting to know your direct reports personally, telling them when they’re succeeding and when they can do better.
A great CEO also gives their direct reports guidance and feedback that is kind and clear, specific and sincere. If you don’t deliver praise to show people what to do more of or offer criticism to show people what to change, you’re not going to be a very effective leader and you’ll likely have a lot of turnover on your team. Besides just being the right thing to do, being kind and clear can save you tons of time and money in the long run because you’ll retain your top talent.
The most effective CEOs learn from their mistakes and their successes. While this might seem obvious, true learning is actually pretty rare. In my experience, this happens because leaders feel pressured to be consistent. This can make them reluctant to pivot even if a mistake or a success reveals a more efficient path forward.
In addition, people can get overwhelmed by both their work and their personal lives. In this case, they may be too burned out to learn from both wins and losses. If you’re not learning, while you can tread water for a while, you’re eventually going to sink to the bottom of the proverbial pool.
5. In the book, you talk about how “no one is a top performer,” but you always emphasize the importance of rewarding top performers. How do you balance this ideology?
What the book actually talks about is the difference between rock stars and superstars. While no one is a top performer all the time, both rock stars and superstars can be top performers.
Rock stars are people who are rock solid. They’re happy in the role they’re in. They do great work, but they’re not interested in moving up the ladder right now. Forcing these people into promotions or management positions they don’t want is a mistake.
Superstars are your top performers who do want to climb the ladder. They’re on a steep growth trajectory, and keeping these people in a role for too long because they’re good at it means they’ll likely leave your company to find advancement opportunities somewhere else.
In some companies, rock stars don’t get the performance review they deserve because all the top ratings are reserved for people who are in line to get promoted. However, all of your top performers should get top ratings. When performance ratings have an impact on compensation, this is especially important.
If one person is doing much better work than others on the team, it seems obvious that they should get a better rating and a higher bonus. But when ratings are primarily used to justify future promotions, rather than to recognize past performance, this doesn’t happen.
You need both high-performing superstars and rock stars to succeed, and this means recognizing your top performers in both categories and knowing the difference between them. And you can't do this if you don't take the time to get to know your team.
In addition, if you ignore your top performers and spend all of your time with the people who are failing to meet expectations, your top superstars and rock stars won’t get the guidance and feedback they need to continue to succeed. Instead, showing everyone what truly exceptional performance looks like will help those who are failing to see more clearly what’s expected of them.
6. What is your ultimate hope/goal for teaching ‘Radical Candor’?
The purpose of Radical Candor is to learn how not to hate the boss you have or be the boss you hate. People spend a huge portion of their lives at work. And, over the course of my career, I’ve learned that you can achieve more success and actually enjoy coming to work if you commit to being both kind and clear.
The company Radical Candor has Candor Coaches who teach workshops around the world. We’ve heard time and again that the principles of Radical Candor not only help people improve their relationships at work but in every aspect of their lives. If Radical Candor can help bring more compassion and clarity to people’s lives at work and at home, I’ve done my job.
The feedback from the hundreds of companies around the world where we’ve taught Radical Candor has been overwhelmingly positive. Sweet Fish Media told us they grew 285% the year they implemented Radical Candor. Tech company ZenHub said adopting a culture of Radical Candor helped them get to the root of and resolve issues faster as well as mentor each other more effectively. Radical Candor has been taught in pretty much every industry you can imagine in both the public and private sectors.
There’s an enormous hunger for it, which is why we’re currently in the process of developing Improvising Radical Candor: Digital in partnership with Second City Works, the business development arm of renowned theater group, The Second City. Available in early 2020, it’s a series of reality-based, comedic shorts and improv exercises that put the ideas of Radical Candor’s kind and clear guidance and feedback framework into practice in a scalable and sustainable way.
I’ve been on set during filming, and the content is both really funny and highly effective.
8. How has creating a company that failed early changed the way you approach business and running companies?
I’d actually had three failed start-ups by the time I began my career at Google. One of the biggest lessons I learned came from managing badly. In the book, I talk about someone I hired named Bob. While Bob looked great on paper, he was doing terrible work. But instead of letting Bob know his work wasn’t up to par, I picked up his slack and failed to offer him the feedback and guidance he needed to improve.
Bob was not a lost cause, he was just in the wrong role. When I finally told Bob his work was substandard, he was furious — and rightfully so — that I hadn’t been giving him feedback all along.
In addition, my failure to address the problem sooner put my entire team at risk. People were less confident in my leadership, and I risked losing my top performers because I failed to practice Radical Candor with Bob.
Instead, I was practicing rampant Ruinous Empathy, which is what happens when you’re so afraid of hurting someone’s feelings that you fail to tell them something they need to know.
This was a hard lesson, but it changed the way I managed teams moving forward. I’ve found that you’ll get further faster and be more successful if you are kind and clear while also being specific and sincere. It sounds easy, but practicing Radical Candor is something I still struggle with every day.
9. Should “people-pleasing” be a part of the job description of a CEO at a top company?
No. People-pleasing is what got me into that mess with Bob. It’s always better to be honest as long as you are also compassionate. Giving praise and criticism can be hard, but avoiding doing it because you want to be liked makes you an ineffective leader.
The thing that makes praise difficult is the other side of the same coin that makes criticism difficult. In the case of criticism, most people are nervous about hurting people’s feelings, so they often say nothing.
In the case of praise, most people are eager to please the people around them, so they always say something — sometimes inane things (this is why feedback needs to be specific). I’ve done both and neither approach is effective.
Being well-liked and being a good boss aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, if you commit to practicing Radical Candor, your team will not only like you, they’ll respect you, too, because they know where they stand.
10. What’s the best advice you have ever received on happiness?
One unexpected thing I learned in business school has contributed greatly to my overall happiness. At Harvard Business School, they encouraged us to exercise daily and emphasized how important it was.
I developed a habit of daily exercise, which is probably the most important thing I took away from my time there. Now, I stay grounded by exercising for 45 minutes every day, ensuring I get eight hours of sleep every night, and having a real conversation every day with someone I love. I have found that adopting a few healthy habits has made me much happier, not to mention more energetic and more creative.
11. Do you plan on writing any more books in the future?
Before I wrote Radical Candor, I actually wrote three novels: Virtual Love, a fictional version of my time at Google about how work and life can reinforce one another; The Househusband, a humorous take on gender roles and cultural bias in modern parenting; and The Measurement Problem, a story about how capitalism fails to reward intangible things like love.
I’m currently working on a book about gender bias at work. While this is a topic desperately in need of Radical Candor, it’s also one in which people are least likely to offer it, and even less likely to listen when they hear it.
Gender bias hurts women and non-binary people in more ways than are obvious. Even if you have a culture free of harassment, women are still judged differently at work. While a man may be considered a go-getter, a woman is called aggressive for the same behavior.
Women are asked to adjust their personalities to be more “likable,” which makes them less effective at their jobs. Studies suggest that in the long run, this dynamic leads to men holding two-thirds more leadership roles than women. I touch on this in chapter six of Radical Candor, but the new book is a deep dive into this topic.
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