A collection of Futuregrowth thought leadership pieces, media articles and interviews.

BOOK REVIEW - Radical Candor: Be a kick-ass boss without losing your humanity

12 Jun 2019

Tarryn Sankar / Head: Listed Credit


Since you learned to talk you’ve likely been taught some version of, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all."

”Then, you become the boss and the very thing you’ve been taught not to do since you were 18 months old is suddenly your job. In Radical Candor, author Kim Scott shares personal stories of her time as a successful manager at Google and later Apple, where she developed a course on optimal management. Scott also outlines the development and practical application of a framework called Radical Candor, centred on the principles of caring personally and challenging directly, which can be used by bosses to build better relationships with their direct reports.

While Silicon Valley may seem a far cry from the South African investment management industry, there are a number of similarities. The war for “talent” is intense, and twenty years ago management skills were neither taught nor rewarded. Certainly, the questions around talent management and retention in Silicon Valley ring true. Why does everyone always want the next job when they haven’t mastered the one they have yet? Why do millennials expect their careers to come with instructions like a Lego set? Why won’t everyone just do their job and let me do mine?

Unlike high-growth tech businesses, in Silicon Valley, as is the case elsewhere, relationships don’t scale: it’s not possible to have real relationships with more than a handful of people. At Futuregrowth, we’ve been grappling with both the growth prospects and challenges associated with our own journey from a small to a big asset management business. What we’ve learnt so far is that, while culture does scale, the relationship with the handful of people reporting directly to you has an enormous impact on the results your team achieves.

Caring personally

It’s likely that throughout your entire working life you’ve been told to be professional, which too often has been code for leaving your humanity at home in order to get things done. Scott argues that in order to build strong relationships, you have to care personally. One way of doing this is as simple as showing enough vulnerability to admit when you’re having a bad day, and creating a safe place for others to do the same. Bringing your whole self to work is a key element of Futuregrowth’s culture but, in my view, this is a concept that’s hard to define precisely. I must admit that vulnerability is not something I readily associate with leadership and I find expressing vulnerability in a work environment anything but simple. In this regard, I found Scott’s approach to clearly outlining what caring personally is not (memorising birthdays and names of family members; forced chitchat at social events you’d rather not attend) and what it is (acknowledging that we are people with lives and aspirations that extend beyond those related to our shared work) particularly useful in unpacking what it truly means to bring your whole self to work and, more importantly, how to model this behaviour to your team.

Challenging directly

Candour, in contrast to radical or brutal honesty, implies simply offering one’s view of what’s going on and that you expect others to offer theirs. If it turns out, in fact, that you’re the one who got it wrong, you’d want to know. Challenging people is often the best way to show that 1) you care enough to point out both the things that aren’t going well and the things that are, and 2) you are willing to admit that you are wrong and that you are committed to fixing the mistakes that you and others have made. Challenging directly entails embracing conflict rather than avoiding it and building enough trust between people to enable reciprocal challenge, regardless of reporting relationship. It does not mean that whatever you think is the truth - it just means that you share your (humble) opinions directly.

Dilbert on Radical Candor
Source: Dilbert

Providing guidance using the Radical Candor framework

The diagram below shows the application of the Radical Candor framework to giving guidance in the following scenario: your colleague has walked out of the restroom, fly down, shirttail sticking out the front. What do you say?

Radical Candor framework
Source: Kim Scott

The behaviours outlined in each of the quadrants (Ruinous Empathy, Manipulative Insincerity, Obnoxious Aggression and Radical Candor)  are behaviours that everyone falls into at one time or another- they are not personality types, or talent or cultural judgements. The framework demonstrates how the principles of caring personally and challenging directly can be used as a compass to guide conversations to a more productive place. Both caring personally and challenging directly are sensitive to context-this context, however, is measured at the listener’s ear and not at the speaker’s mouth. As an example, what would be considered Radical Candor in New York City could easily be perceived as Obnoxious Aggression in the more conservative Japanese culture.

Reframing ambition using the Radical Candor framework

Scott shares some interesting insight into the differing views of ambition at Google and Apple, and how the principle of caring personally, as outlined in the Radical Candor framework, can be used to manage someone’s growth trajectory, as opposed to their growth potential.

“A leader at Apple had a good way to think about different types of ambition: rock stars are solid as a rock, and a force for stability at work (think Rock of Gibraltar, not Bruce Springsteen), while superstars are highly-ambitious change agents, constantly seeking new opportunities”.

“At Google, I systematically undervalued rock stars [people on the team who got exceptional results but were on a more gradual growth trajectory]. This mistake caused a lot of unhappiness for people who contributed significantly”.

Scott proposed viewing direct reports not through the lens of one’s own ambitions or judgements, but in terms of where individuals are on their individual growth trajectories. Practically, this means questioning what growth trajectory individuals want to be on rather than making assessments on whether this a person with a low or high potential. It also challenges bosses to consider whether they have given everyone opportunities that are in line with their growth trajectory, and assists in uncovering what truly motivates individuals much more than questions around talent and potential could.

Radical Candor growth trajectory
Source: Kim Scott

The real insight for me in reviewing this particular application of the Radical Candor framework was that growth trajectories change and that you shouldn’t put permanent labels on people. After all, the heart of the relationship between bosses and their direct reports is human, and relationships change as people change. Most people shift between a steep growth trajectory and a gradual growth trajectory during different phases of their lives and their careers.

To more experienced managers, Radical Candor may not offer any particularly new or ground-breaking insights that have not already been garnered by trial and error over the years. For new or first-time managers, however, Radical Candor provides a framework to avoid or at the very least drastically reduce years of said management trial and error by offering a practical guidebook filled with simple tools and strategies that can be used to help new managers build trust in teams and avoid common management pitfalls. 

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