tl;dr: I recently read Radical Candor. My main reflections were that challenging is caring, that clarifying ideas through selection, elimination and emphasis is an excellent starting point for debating, and that context awareness is key for putting together a development plan for someone.

Earlier this year I was introduced to Radical Candor, by Kim Scott, amidst an interview process. The book is a gem on leadership and management, regardless of at which stage in your career you are at and if you effectively manage people or not.

The first part covers a set of anecdotes from executives at large organisations such as Google and Apple – including Kim herself, whose experiences include leading hundreds of people in her tenure at Google. Then, the second part is more actionable, with tips on how to put it into practice, and how to effectively execute what the anecdotes touch upon.

After reading and digesting it, I thought I’d share my three favourite reflections from the book.

Reflection #1: Challenging is, effectively, caring

The main framework on the book relies on two dimensions: Caring Personally and Challenging Directly, splitting people’s behaviour into four quadrants. Kim uses anecdotes which exemplify the side effects of over-indexing on any of the dimensions: Ruinous Empathy when you care, but don’t challenge, and Obnoxious Aggression when you challenge without really caring. When your behaviour lacks both, you are falling into Manipulative Insincere, and finally, when you excel on both, you achieve Radical Candor. It’s worth noting that these behaviours are transient, meaning nobody fundamentally is any of these, but instead, expresses these in different situations.

The Radical Candor Framework
The Radical Candor Framework

As you know, it really can be tricky to challenge your boss. This natural pullback can come from multiple places, for instance, overarching cultural differences, such as coming from a context where hierarchy is overly respected. It can come from the fact that you belong to one (or multiple) minoritised groups. It can come from the fact your work environment and past experiences didn’t allow for candor to flourish. It can come from fear of judgement, lack of confidence, or from feeling that your opinion is less relevant than others in the room. The list could go on, but bottom line is that it isn’t easy to get started.

My main take on the subject is that firstly, as a leader you must incentivise and reward challenge, but not only that, you should help people to challenge you and each other. Challenge will most likely start with a subtle note, or one can be dancing around the subject to tell you something they didn’t agree with. People will give you signs that they’re trying to disagree with you, and it is your responsibility to help them to challenge you when you think they are trying to.

Further, we only argue for things that mean something to us, the ones we don’t care about we just dismiss. If people are voicing their opinion out is because they care, and that’s the most important quality you can have from anyone in your team. The best teams I have ever worked with had a strong sense of pride, belonging, and giving the team the ability to change your course comes with effect way more valuable than attribution, or ownership of a solution: it provides the team with a shared purpose.

Finally, that shouldn’t be a manager-report thing. Peers should be able to challenge each others’ work or behaviour, and that is usually a very good starting point if you don’t feel comfortable challenging up. Increasing cohesion from a culture standpoint by challenging sideways can be a great step towards challenging upwards.

In conclusion, the framework in the book helped me to further bring to consciousness the extent that the two dimensions (caring and challenging) are entwined.

Reflection #2: Clarify to get to the real meaning

Another tool the book offers is the GSD Wheel. The Clarify step caught a lot of my attention. In short, this step explains how important it is to let ideas breathe, and give them time to reach maturity before debating, so you don’t cut it off too early or too short. The section starts with a quote:

It is only by selection, by elimination, and by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.

— Georgia O’Keeffe

What I got to is that selection helps to pick the right balance between known and unknown, and how much of each one of these ingredients to allow for each circumstance. That would be something like defining the appetite for effort and risk. Another way to think of it is a highly successful product which seems to have very few features. What happens there is that it usually slices a part of a problem, and focuses on solving that problem and its adjacencies incredibly well, whilst being very opinionated about what it shouldn’t and doesn’t do. That brings us to the next point.

Elimination is about defining the boundaries and thresholds, or in other words, what you are not solving for at the time. Good examples of elimination are:

  1. Clearly articulating rabbit holes: we are doing A and B, but we don’t know much about C and how complicated it will be, so let’s leave it out until we know more;
  2. Defining domain boundaries: we’d love to have this feature, but we believe it should live somewhere else other than this domain, so we’ll give it some more thought;
  3. Trimming scope down: through X and Y we’ll achieve 85% of a key result we’re trying to get to. We’ll leave Z out for the time being as it increases the complexity of X and Y drastically and can compromise their delivery;

In short, elimination is about reducing noise from your message, so you don’t dilute it with less relevant things. But is saying enough “no”s sufficient?

Most likely no, and that’s when emphasis is important. Emphasis is about doubling down on what really matters for the slice of the problem you are solving, so you increase the chances of success. Just saying “no” to a set of things doesn’t guarantee that someone will know exactly what you mean, so intentionality, consistency and repetition are important so you can make your message more relatable, reach a broader audience, and make sure you clarify what you are in fact doing.

For the sake of comparison, some anti-patterns to this I could think of are:

  • Selection: over-indexing on customer needs and ending up in a situation where you lose the thread of your own strategy;
  • Elimination: not having a strong stance on saying enough nos, and leaving too much room for misinterpretation;
  • Emphasis: going too wide too early or having an overly abstract strategy, lacking opinion on tactics, making it hard to attain.

Having this frame helps to clarify whatever you are doing in a simple, yet powerful and opinionated way, to get to what you mean – which by the way is the book’s subtitle.

Reflection #3: Context awareness is key for development

Another subject which I found fascinating was career conversations. This is the structure proposed by the book:

  1. Start with the Past: Go through the person’s life story;
  2. Talk about the Future: Talk about their goals, or preferably, their dreams;
  3. Plan for the Present: Put together the action plan;

What I tried doing in my team’s last development cycle is putting forward their development plans using this structure.

Start with the Past feels similar in format to topgrading, but with different purpose: instead of evaluating values and fit, understanding drivers and motivations for each event in their lives, such as:

  • Why did you pursue a degree in X? And why did you drop out?
  • What made you pick a job at Company Y over other options?
  • What was the most pleasing project you worked on at Z?

The main goal is finding patterns, for instance, leaving a few places because of lack of growth opportunities, and mentioning a project which felt like a massive leap in their career might belong to a driver named Seeking Growth. That’d be different, let’s say, to someone being driven by having a large impact. There’s a difference between these motivations as the former is driven by progression and the latter by the outcome. As a side note, for senior team members, who may have decades worth of experience, instead of looking at specific tenures, I recommend grouping roles into cycles which you define together instead.

As you get to 3-5 drivers, writing down a few questions based on each driver might help, such as: what are the largest opportunities we have here for you to grow and why?, for Seeking Growth. Later, when you and the person are defining what the opportunities for the present are, these questions can be insightful.

I love Kim’s approach to Talk about the Future as it includes dreams, not only goals. Understanding someone’s personal needs reinforces your understanding of their context and helps you gauge and define what are the right set of initiatives for them, at the time. The book outlines an approach around finding 3-5 dreams, such as getting to an influential management role, starting your own business, or winning a sports championship, and then breaking these down into skills you need to achieve them. I personally like the idea of requesting at least one non-work-related objective to have extra context, as well as get to know who you work with better.

For instance, you might discover a huge undertaking a team member will have to move houses, or something they have been working on for years to achieve. Whatever it is, it will help you be a more empathetic leader, as well as guide you on what’s really important for them at the moment.

Of course, after having these two inputs, you are in a much more considerate position to put forward a Plan for the Present for anyone. Through this acquired knowledge, you can challenge yourself whether the areas that you expect someone to develop is in line with their own motivations. This awareness helps and supports the whole framework – to have candid conversations while caring personally and challenging directly. At this stage, it is mostly tactics: finding out opportunities which exist for them to achieve whatever they’re looking for.

In summary, Radical Candor was a very pleasing read for me. I appreciated the mix of anecdotes and very attainable tips to try out. There are many more interesting concepts on the book; therefore I highly recommend that you should check it out!