Radical Candour

Authored by Terri Simpkin, Portman Partners Associate

Cultivating Candor – To Be a Good Leader, You Must Be a Good Human

It’s a well-used adage in the digital infrastructure sector that no one walked into their careers advice counsellor and declared, ‘I have found my calling! All I want to do is be a data centre leader.’ And yet, the sector is full of leaders who have made their way to the upper echelons of their technical vocation & somehow found themselves in a position of senior management or leadership. If you are one of those people, it may have rapidly become profoundly obvious that the capabilities required to be an effective leader are vastly different from knowing your stuff as a technical expert.

However, despite the plethora of populist leadership programmes, advice from leadership ‘gurus’ & self-development education (formal and informal), effective leadership is fraught with ongoing challenges. Often too, leaders and those around them – peers & team members alike – are less than straightforward about what they want, what they think & what they need others to do to get the job at hand done effectively.

Politics, politeness, the desire to avoid conflict, or sheer exasperation might distort otherwise enlightening discussion and honest feedback, so it goes unsaid. Worse still, on the flip side, communication might be hampered by scathing critique or authoritarian diatribes. None of these approaches is ideal or conducive to getting ‘stuff’ done.

In her 2017 (updated in 2019) book ‘Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing your Humanity,’ Kim Scott (ex-Google, Apple University, among other tech roles) identifies that there are better ways to communicate as a leader. So too, as part of an organisation that embeds this approach, communication between colleagues and between team members and leaders (e.g., managing upwards) becomes much less tortuous or convoluted.

But what is Radical Candor™? Scott describes it as a way of being sincere and specific, kind and clear. It is about being direct without losing humanity. The book’s strapline identifies the approach as a style of interacting with others that is about caring personally while being able to challenge others directly. It is an approach that validates the need to be human while also being professional in interactions with others. For example, leaders often fall into the habit of not expressing their views directly for fear of hurting the feelings of others and instead dance around required criticism or sugar-coat feedback so as not to appear too harsh. Even worse, they may say nothing at all & hope that it will sort itself out, frequently leading to misunderstandings & poor task outcomes. Scott calls this ‘ruinous empathy’ – an approach favouring care for others over honest & direct communication. On the other hand, a leader may find themselves using an approach Scott calls ‘obnoxious aggression’ where brutal honesty is used without care or empathy for the person. This may be a follow-up consequence of ‘ruinous empathy’ & exasperation that initial feedback was not clear enough to be useful in the first place.

Manipulative insincerity is something that is all too common in organisations. Playing politics, backstabbing, bullying, and passive-aggressive behaviours are examples of this approach that is neither direct nor caring but often learned by leaders who may have seen ‘old school’ predecessors or mentors working in similar ways. It is the stuff of toxic workplaces & lacks an aspiration of contemporary organisations for greater levels of humanity & collaboration.

Radical Candor™ offers leaders and their teams a way of being openly caring & transparent, fundamentally human & direct. But, of course, while individual leaders can use this approach, it is likely to work much more effectively if it is embedded into the culture & becomes an expected way of working for everyone.

So, while digital infrastructure leadership may not necessarily have been the go-to career aspiration for many leaders & managers, bolstering communication, feedback & direction with caring & a good dose of humanity are key planks in the platform of leadership effectiveness. In addition, developing a culture that rests on Radical Candor™ may make the leadership role just that little bit less fraught.