She’s a leader who teaches CEOs how to lead. And she’s throwing out almost everything you’ve ever learned about leadership in the process.
Kim Scott’s decades of experience has spanned being co-founder and CEO of Juice Software, leading sales teams at Google, and teaching leadership at Apple. But it doesn’t stop there. She’s been a CEO coach at some of the tech world’s biggest companies, including Dropbox, Qualtrics, and Twitter. Her career has taken her across the globe, from managing a pediatric clinic in Kosovo to starting a diamond-cutting factory in Moscow.
And now Kim has distilled everything she’s learned along the way into her NYT bestselling book, Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. Along with it, she’s Co-Founder of Candor, Inc. and hosts the podcast, Radical Candor, all in an effort to redefine what it means to be a leader.
We sat down with Kim to discuss the qualities and practices of good managers, how Radical Candor changed her professional life, and three non-negotiable steps for remaining even-keeled.
As we see in your history, you’ve had such a deep focus on technology and innovation. Why did you decide to put yourself out there and write a book?
As I went through my career, I found that the thing I cared the most about wasn’t actually building the business—the thing I cared deeply about was building a team of people that could do the very best work of their lives. I wanted to try and operationalize things I’d learned, from designing and teaching a class called “Managing at Apple,” to a similar project I was working on at Twitter. Early on, when I got to Silicon Valley, a friend warned me that management was neither taught nor valued there, but I realized that that was beginning to change. People in operating roles that know this topic don’t tend to be writers—I love to write, and I decided to do it.
What makes Radical Candor different than other approaches?
I’ll give you an example. Years ago, I had just started at Google and was working for Sheryl Sandberg. I’d just given a presentation on the AdSense business to the Google executives, which I thought had gone pretty well. As I left—as I walked out of the room—I passed by Sheryl, and I was expecting a pat on the back, or a ‘good job’, or a high five, or something. Instead she says, “Why don’t you walk back to my office with me?”
She started to tell me about the things that had gone well in a kind and genuine way, but then she stopped and said, “You said ‘um’ a lot in there, were you aware of it?” That’s when I sighed a huge sigh of relief—if ‘ums’ had been my biggest mistake, that was great news. I brushed it off. Now, Sheryl has very good relational awareness, and could tell what I was doing. She didn’t let it go. She asked if she could hire a speech coach. Again, I brushed it off. And then she stopped and looked right at me and said, “I can tell I’m going to have to be a lot more direct with you. When you say ‘um’ every third word, it makes you sound stupid.” That’s when she got my full attention.
Some people would say it was a mean thing to say, but it was actually the kindest thing for me at that moment in my career. If she hadn’t said it to me that way, I wouldn’t have gone to the speech coach, and when I did go, I realized Sheryl hadn’t exaggerated. I’d been giving presentations my entire career. Why had nobody told me that before? And what was it about Sheryl that made it so seemingly easy for her to tell me? I realized it boiled down to two things: Sheryl cared personally for me and my career, and she challenged me directly.
We’ve all been taught since we were 18 months old, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’ For some reason, we haven’t realized that it’s now our job to say exactly that.
“What advice do you have for those leaders who are good at caring about their employees personally, but struggle to challenge them directly?”
The most common mistake is showing a person that we care about them while failing to challenge them directly. That, I call ‘ruinous empathy.’ That’s the misstep that leaders really need to avoid.
When you challenge someone directly but fail to show that you care personally—I call that ‘obnoxious aggression.’ When I first started thinking about this, I called it ‘the asshole quadrant.’ Sometimes we fail on both dimensions at the same time: we fail to show that we care, and we fail to challenge. That, I call ‘manipulative insincerity.’ That’s passive-aggressive behavior, backstabbing, political behavior. But we all do it sometimes—the Radical Candor framework isn’t meant to put people in boxes, it’s meant to help guide them away from those behaviors.
Is being a good manager all about self-awareness?
It requires both great self-awareness and relational awareness. You can have the best intentions in the world, but if you don’t understand the impact that you’re having on other people, it doesn’t do any good. One of the things I say is that it doesn’t get measured at your mouth—it gets measured at the other person’s ear.
What advice do you have for leaders that say, “That all sounds wonderful, but I have too much to do to give the kind of time that Sheryl gave to you.”
The great thing about Radical Candor is that it’s both free and super-fast. Some of the best feedback I’ve ever received from a boss or colleague has been in one to two-minute conversations in between meetings. The whole conversation with Sheryl took place just like that: between meetings. It didn’t take much time, but what it did take was emotional discipline: that self-awareness and relational awareness.
The origin story for Radical Candor happened in the space it took for a light to change on the street in Manhattan. I had a puppy, and I loved her, and she was totally out of control. We were walking and she leapt into the street, almost got hit by a cab, and I pulled her back just in time. A perfect stranger looked at me and said, “I can see that you really love that dog.” That’s all someone has to do to show they care, personally: just show people that you see them, that they’re seen, in that moment. It doesn’t have to take a long time. And that was what gave him the right to say what he said next: “But you’re gonna kill that dog if you don’t teach it to sit.” And he yelled at my dog to sit, and she sat. I didn’t even know she could do that! I asked him how he did that, and he said “it’s not mean, it’s clear.” And the light changed and he walked off, leaving me with words to live by.
How much variance in feedback do you see across age groups and geographies?
Radical Candor is universally human. There’s no culture or age group on the planet that doesn’t think love and truth are unimportant, and that’s fundamentally what we’re talking about here. But it does vary culture to culture. At one point, I was leading a team in Tokyo, and a team in Tel Aviv, and Radical Candor sounded very different between the two. In Tokyo, I actually called it ‘Polite Persistence,’ because polite was how they showed they cared personally, and persistence was how they challenged directly. In Tel Aviv, if I had told them to be polite, they would have thought I was telling them to be patronizing. Again, in any situation, your radical candor gets measured by their ear—not your mouth.
Generationally, millennials get a lot of flak, and I feel like they get a lot of it unfairly. At Google, I was working with a team of 700 people who had just graduated. Lots of millennials. They were all really hungry for growth and development, but they wanted feedback. They wanted to know when they’d screwed up. But you had to show them that you cared. If they thought you were just being a jerk about it, they would shut down, as we all do. I don’t think that’s a generational thing, I think that’s a human thing.
With all the information that’s available at work, what is your belief system around transparency of information?
I’m a big believer in transparency, but I’m also a big believer in relationships. Relationships require some degree of privacy. But when it comes to business metrics and making sure everyone is on the same page about goals…you would be crazy to not be transparent about those things. If you make more information available to people, they will solve problems before leaders even know problems exist. I’m a huge believer in every team having a public dashboard so they know how they’re doing against their metrics on a day-to-day basis. If you wait until the end of the quarter to let them know how they’re doing, then it’s too late to fix anything. There’s no reason not to do this with the technology that’s available today.
As a coach, what advice do CEOs ask of you?
I think it’s really important to find someone that’s walked a mile in your shoes. A coach is different than a shrink—a coach needs to have a personal understanding of your day-to-day life and the challenges you’re having. It’s also important that the CEO and coach share a management philosophy.
Being CEO is a really lonely job. You’ve got all these big decisions to make: you’ve got to decide who you’re going to promote, who you’re going to fire, make compensation decisions, choose who’s going to work on what project, figure out how to get people to work better together. It’s not really appropriate to have those conversations with members of your team—the last thing you want to do as a leader is talk about somebody’s peer. Your spouse is probably sick of hearing about these people and problems. You don’t want to take it to the board, because sometimes they’ll take the decision away from you. So, as a CEO, you need someone that understands your problems and what you’re trying to accomplish and is just willing to listen.
How can leaders make sure they’re in balance?
It’s really important to figure out what your recipe is to stay even-keeled. My recipe is probably different than yours, but there are three key pieces to it. First, I have to get enough sleep. Second, I’ve got to spend at least an hour each day exercising. And third, I need to spend an hour every day with the people I love—I try to have breakfast and dinner with my kids and husband. Once in a while, I’ll miss a meal with them, but in general, I have to do these things. It took me until I was about 35 to realize that doing those things was actually part of my job. If I didn’t do them, I wasn’t going to be productive. Very often, we think if we get too much sleep, we’re doing a disservice to the team, because we’re not working during that time, but I realized that it was the opposite. The two sides aren’t in tension—they work together. Think about a wheel—if the center of the wheel is out of alignment, the whole thing goes wonky.
What do you read?
I love reading novels. Books like Middlemarch and Anna Karenina have helped me to be a better manager. Reading is a great way to not only understand how your own head works, but how other people’s heads work. When you read a great novel, you really get inside another human being’s head, and that’s amazing.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing a new book called Radical Conciliation. It’s about how to have a radically candid conversation about gender. Gender is probably the topic on which it’s most important to have these conversations, and also where we’re least likely to have them.
*Article edited for clarity and brevity.