Book Review: Radical Candor

Radical Candor, by Kim Scott. NY: St. Martin’s Press. 2017. 232 pages.

Radical CandorKim Scott starts her excellent management book by telling a story about one of her employees in the first company she owned. “Bob” was a kind, funny, caring, and supportive colleague. There was just one problem: his work was terrible. She liked Bob, and didn’t want to come down too hard on him. So she didn’t tell him how bad his work was, or how his poor work affected the rest of the team. She didn’t tell him how much he was screwing up. The rest of the team covered for him, and morale suffered.

Eventually, she had to fire him. But it was too late. The dysfunctional team had gotten such poor results that, before long, the entire company failed.

This situation resulted in dire consequences, but it led Scott to try to understand what had happened. Over time, she developed a management philosophy that she calls “Radical Candor.” This is what happens when a manager puts “caring personally” with “challenging directly” together.

Managers need to get to know their direct reports. They can’t know everyone in the company well, but they can share more than just their work selves with the people who report directly to them. “It’s not just business; it is personal, and deeply personal,” says Scott.

Managers also need to be willing to tell people when their work isn’t good enough, and when it is. According to Scott, challenging people is often the best way to show them that you care when you’re the boss.

These two dimensions, when combined well, result in Radical Candor. “When people trust you and believe you care about them, they are much more likely to 1) accept and act on your praise and criticism; 2) tell you what they really think about what you are doing well and, more importantly, not doing so well; 3) engage in this same behavior with one another, meaning less pushing the rock up the hill again and again; 4) embrace their role on the team; and 5) focus on getting results.”

The first section of the book describes the philosophy behind Radical Candor and goes into depth about the lessons Scott learned while working as a mid-level manager at Google, Apple, and other companies. For example, “Care Personally” and “Challenge Directly” can result in Radical Candor, if combined well, but they can also result in Ruinous Empathy, Manipulative Insincerity, or Obnoxious Aggression if combined poorly. She explains how to avoid the negative aspects of this combination, and tells anecdotes about mistakes she and others made before they got Radical Candor correct.

The book’s second section gives detailed suggestions for how to employ Radical Candor. These suggestions are interesting and helpful, both for new and experienced managers.

One of my favorite sections is about how to fire a poorly performing employee. In terms of knowing when it’s time to fire them, Scott asks: Have you given Radically Candid guidance? How is the person’s poor performance affecting the rest of the team? Have you sought out a second opinion, spoken to someone whom you trust and with whom you can talk the problem through?

If you have considered all these, you will need to think about the lies managers tell themselves to avoid firing somebody who needs to be fired. These include: it will get better, somebody is better than nobody, a transfer is the answer, and it’s bad for morale to fire someone.

When you have considered these lies, and you still need to fire that person, the way you do it matters. It’s important to feel the pain that is inherent in the situation, to recall a job that you were terrible at and think how glad you feel that you’re no longer in it. When you fire someone, you create the possibility for the person to excel and find happiness performing meaningful work elsewhere. Just because the person isn’t good at this job doesn’t mean there isn’t another job out there they could be great at.

Every organization has a process for firing people, and it’s important to follow that completely. The process usually involves consulting with human resources, your peers, and your own manager about what you are doing. When you do fire the person, make sure to show that you care about him/her while you also explain exactly why you are terminating their employment. Scott emails people she has fired about a month later, just to check in. She tries to find them jobs for which they are better suited. Even if that doesn’t happen, she keeps in touch.

The book includes many practical suggestions for how to create and implement Radical Candor in your team. The writing is clear, and the author’s thoughtfulness and caring are demonstrated on every page. Radical Candor offers a guide to those bewildered or exhausted by management, and it is written for bosses and anyone who has a boss.

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Sure you care, but are you passionate?

Are you passionate?Are you passionate about your job? Sure, you care about it, you want to make better metrics than last quarter, and you help your team, but are you passionate? Company culture is formed by the attitudes of every single employee in the organization, and it’s the managers who set the example. Even a talented team won’t give their best work with a sluggish and unmotivated manager. If you really want to boost your efficiency, quality, and performance then make sure you wake up every morning ready to passionately lead your team to victory.

Setting a Good Example
When you come into the office whistling, that good cheer is infectious. So too will be your excitement to dive into work and do better than ever before. Let your pep talks get a little grandiose and don’t be afraid to let your eyes shine with ambition. Your team may laugh at first, but you’ll soon notice a new energy and hustle on even the most mundane tasks. Employees will follow a passionate leader to the ends of the earth.

Motivate to Innovate
They say that invention is the child of necessity, but innovation is the child of passion. Being a great leader means never being completely satisfied with your work. This means that even if you rocked it this week, there’s always room for improvement. When you’ve hit peak performance using your current tactics, don’t settle in. Change it up! Use your passion to seek new and better ways to do your job and enable your team to do theirs.

Give It Your All
As a leader, it’s your natural goal to see your team working at optimal performance, giving every ounce of talent and energy to projects that deserve their attention. The best way to accomplish this is to optimize your own efforts. Make sure you’re working hard instead of staying busy, doing the most important work first, and delegating intelligently. This allows you to optimize from the top down and shows your team how you expect them to follow your lead.

If you’re just starting to implement a passionate leadership style, don’t be surprised if it’s hard work! Sliding into bed at night satisfied and exhausted is a good sign that you’re doing it right. Soon enough, your mind and body will adapt to committing more energy to your job and being passionate will get both easier and more fun for everyone involved. For a dedicated team and phenomenal project results, there’s no substitute for passionate leadership.

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Conflict Management

Conflict ManagementConflict is strange. A few people seem to thrive on it, most people do their best to manage it when it comes up, and a small minority simply avoid it at any cost. Whenever people come together, there will be different points of view, and sometimes these result in conflicts. As a leader, you have your own perception of conflict, and at the same time you have to cope with all of your colleagues’ perceptions. What’s a struggling leader to do?

Avoiding conflict at all costs is probably not the best option. Avoidance might appear to work for a while, but it isn’t a good long-term solution. Serious conflicts need to be addressed and a solution found, if at all possible. Conversely, raising every issue that arises and discussing it ad nauseum might not be the best solution, either. Some conflicts, especially the small ones, resolve themselves with time. Besides, dealing with conflict is exhausting and frustrating for the people involved.

The option that’s left is managing conflict. Effective leaders do their best to remain calm and objective, and they address conflicts in a direct, purposeful way. If there weren’t at least two valid perspectives on any issue, it wouldn’t be an issue and there probably wouldn’t be a conflict. Leaders must do their best to understand all points of view and guide the conversation toward the best solution.

Ineffective leaders might avoid conflicts, issue edicts that attempt to solve the problem even if they don’t understand it, or become so upset that nothing is resolved. Conflict management is a skill can be learned. Training programs that focus on enhancing negotiation skills can be extremely valuable for people at all levels of an organization.

Listening well is one of the major components of managing conflict. Many people think they are listening to what others have to say, when what they are really doing is preparing their own response in their minds. They can miss important points. One technique to improve your listening skills is to repeat back in your own words what the other person has said, checking to make sure you have gotten it right. When people feel heard, they are more likely to hear what other people are saying, and this makes resolution much more straightforward.

After listening to both sides in a dispute, try to get people to focus on their common goals. People at work are trying to come up with a good product or service, and in some situations their goals may conflict. Reminding people of their common goals is a good starting place.

You will not always be able to reach consensus on the best solution to a conflict. In those circumstances, you will have to make a decision. That is your role as leader. In this situation, all you can do is explain your reasoning clearly and respectfully and allow a cooling-off period. Your team members will have to respect your decisions and work to carry them out.

If you aren’t sure how to respond to a conflict situation, you might benefit by talking it over with a peer before making your decision. This sort of agreement with a colleague to talk over each other’s problem situations can be mutually beneficial.

Overreaction to conflictual situations can be a significant problem for a leader. No one wants to overreact, but none of us is perfect, and everyone will have an emotional reaction to certain issues. When that happens, do your best to calm down. This might involve taking some deep breaths, counting to ten before you speak, or excusing yourself from the room until you have regained your composure. If possible, try to understand what it is about these situations that leads to this overreaction, and speak to a trusted colleague about how to respond in a more measured way.

Conflict is a part of life, and managing it can be difficult. However, resolving conflicts so that the work proceeds smoothly can be a rewarding part of your leadership role.

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Book Review: Start with Why

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, by Simon Sinek. (2009). NY: Portfolio/Penguin.

Start with Why“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Simon Sinek repeats these two phrases a dozen times or more during the famous TED Talk that inspired this book. It’s a simple concept that is incredibly empowering: why you do something is more important than either what you do or how you do it. “Why” is the inspiration that makes people follow you or buy your products. “Why” might include your belief system or why you get up in the morning, and for Sinek, you should be able to express it in words.

Sinek’s personal life purpose is to inspire people to do whatever it is they want to do, and he’s good at it. He believes that products that are infused with the “why” of a company’s existence will be more successful than those that are based on “what” or “how.” Throughout the book, he relies on the examples of Apple, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Wright brothers as successful thought leaders that inspired people with their use of “why.” Apple’s “why” is to challenge the status quo. Dr. King’s “why” was to change America with the civil rights movement. Orville and Wilbur Wright wanted to learn to fly more than they wanted to make a name for themselves or create a fortune, although they succeeded in doing all of those things.

In one sense, the book is about marketing. For example, Sinek talks about how inspiration is more effective at influencing human behavior than manipulation. “From business to politics, manipulations run rampant in all forms of sales and marketing. Typical manipulations include: dropping the price, running a promotion, using fear, peer pressure or aspirational messages; and promising innovation to influence behavior—be it a purchase, a vote or support.” Manipulations work, but not a single one of them breeds loyalty. “Over the course of time, they cost more and more. The gains are only short-term.”

Manipulations are about “what” and “how.” They are not about “why.” Remember: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Only if people understand why you are offering a product or skill will they decide whether they believe the same way you do. If they do, they will be loyal to you, regardless of price point or other manipulations.

In another sense, the book is a reminder that we need to reconsider what brings meaning to our lives. The leader of a company needs to be clear, in his/her mind, why the company exists and to be able to express it to employees. The next level down is the “how” level. These are typically the senior executives who are inspired by the leader’s vision and know how to bring it to life. The “what” level includes the people who implement the strategy and interact with customers.

Sinek says, “No matter how charismatic or inspiring the leader is, if there are not people in the organization inspired to bring that vision to reality, to build an infrastructure with systems and processes, then at best, inefficiency reigns, and at worst, failure results.” Everyone, whether they are the “why,” “how,” or “what” of an organization, needs to feel inspired to get out of bed and go to work every day. In other words, if this job isn’t doing it for you, then you need to figure out what you really want to do and do that instead. Find your own “why.”

According to Sinek, when the “why” gets fuzzy, organizations tend to go downhill. He uses the example of Walmart, which started focusing on the fiscal bottom line rather than fairness after Sam Walton died. When that happened, the company began to rack up lawsuits for its poor treatment of employees. Sinek says making money is never a “why” and will never sustain a business.

Another example is TiVo, which, despite having a superior product, has never been a financial success. The company’s marketing materials talk about what their product does and how it works instead of focusing on the fact that it allows people to have total control over their viewing habits (the “why”).

For the most part, I was excited to read this book. It presents innovative ideas that inspired me to think deeply about what I’m doing and why. After a while, though, I grew restive with the constant focus on Apple and a few other companies. And the message about the need to focus on “why,” albeit fascinating, ultimately became redundant. I raced through the first half of the book and trudged through the second half. You may have a different experience. Either way, it’s worth giving this book a read. Even if you don’t make it to the end, I’m convinced that you will be inspired to think differently about what you do.

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The Unique Leadership Style of Theo Epstein

Cubs WinSome people think leadership is all about education. Others think it’s all about experience. Most people would agree that leadership is certainly about both these things. But Theo Epstein, club president of the Chicago Cubs, thinks leadership is about something else entirely – winning.

According to Tom Verducci’s 2012 article in Forbes, Epstein stood before the Chicago Cubs organization and told them not only that the Cubs were going to win the World Series, but also how he intended to make that happen. Here’s a recap of what he said:

1. Stop relying on statistics-driven data. Everyone else is using this technique, so there’s no analytical edge if you are using the same procedure and getting similar data as everybody else. Understand the limits of using acquired information for making decisions.

2. Invest in relationships. The core players on a team often have long-term connections which are the glue in team-fostering. Acquire and nurture employees who are team-builders.

3. Research people’s character. Epstein spent huge amounts of time and research to find individual players who treated people kindly and coped with adversity in a positive manner. In other words, business leaders need to know that sales numbers and skill sets are not nearly as important as a person’s character.

Epstein did use data-driven analysis, but used it for finding and hiring players who had strengths in areas that most other baseball clubs did not prioritize, such as chemistry and, as we learned in kindergarten, “playing well with others.” Epstein looked at information such as:

  • how the person treated other people when no one else was looking
  • facts about a player’s family
  • how a player reacted to adversity

Epstein said it was all about connection and he was right! The Chicago Cubs did win the World Series putting him on top of the Forbes 2017 World’s Greatest Leaders list. If you’re interested in learning more about Epstein and his leadership beliefs, you can read his book The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse.

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