Back in 2001, when Kim Scott, the former Apple and Google manager and all-round Silicon Valley wonder woman, was running a start-up, her employees unwittingly sent her something that changed the direction of her career. It was a link to an article entitled ‘People would rather have a boss who is a competent arsehole than a boss who is incompetent but nice’.
It woke up an idea in her. “Why are those my only options?” Kim Scott is not an arsehole, but neither is she bad at her job. In fact, she’s such a good manager, she’s literally written the rule book on it.
Radical Candour, Scott’s guide to being a great boss “without losing your humanity” was released in the UK last month, and is the basis upon which her management consultancy company, Candour Inc, was formed. There’s also an accompanying app; Candour Coach because, this is Silicon Valley, so of course there’s an app.
Scott is the perfect person to be dispensing managerial advice. She ran a class at Apple simply called ‘Management at Apple’ and her CV is a mesmerising checklist of managing major tech companies, huge humanitarian projects and daring start-ups, working for the US government and even a gig running a diamond-cutting business in Soviet Russia.
It was there that she had her first revelation about how to be a good manager: “The team and I were out in the woods outside Moscow, in the pouring rain, under a tarp drinking vodka” she tells me, “I thought – what in the world am I doing here? And as we started talking they had a lot of questions for me. When we got to the end of the bottle of vodka it became clear that the main question was: If everything went to hell in Russia, would I help them and their families get out? It was like a bolt of lightning. I realised then that the thing that made a difference as a manager, was that I cared personally about these people working for me. That I gave a damn.”
Giving a damn is integral to Scott’s managerial framework. According to the book there are four states of management behaviour judged along two principles: How much you care about your employees and how much you are willing to challenge them. Or, as Scott likes to put it: “How much you give a damn and how willing you are to piss people off.” There’s obnoxious aggression (no damns given, plenty of people pissed off), ruinous empathy (no one’s pissed off because you give too much of a damn about their feelings), manipulative insincerity (you give no damns and piss no one off – at least not to their face) and, of course, radical candour: the ideal mix of challenging and caring.
Obnoxious aggression may represent full-on arsehole behaviour but it’s actually not the worst thing you can be. “I’m second to none in my advocacy for the no-arsehole rule,” Scott says, “But at least people know where they stand. 85% of management mistakes happen in the ruinous empathy quadrant.”
One mistake of ruinous empathy was made by Scott herself.
“There was a guy I worked with, let’s call him Bob, and he was so lovely and funny and brilliant but he was terrible at his job. Eventually I had to fire him, because the team was suffering, and he had no idea, because I hadn’t given him any guidance or feedback until that moment.” Essentially, she had cared about him too much to challenge him, which would have eventually made him a better employee.
Her top tip for firing effectively is to hire effectively. “Have career conversations early on” she advises, “that way you have a deep understanding of what your employees enjoy and where they want to go.” This understanding will help you guide your employees throughout, so as to avoid firing. But if it becomes inevitable? “Get them to focus on the future. Firing is not the time for critical feedback. The time to help the person get better at their job has passed.”
Praise in public and, if necessary, criticise in private
To give your employees that level of help, you need to create a culture of guidance, where feedback is constant. In her consultancy work as a CEO coach, Scott encourages managers to solicit feedback for themselves. She suggests asking a question like: “Is there anything I could do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?” Once you have shown you can take it, it will hopefully inspire your employees to accept their own guidance from you.
“Praise in public and, if necessary, criticise in private but make sure you give advice as much as possible: The best feedback I’ve ever gotten was an impromptu two-minute conversation in between meetings.” Oh, and FYI, that was from her former boss Sheryl Sandberg, who told her to, erm, not say so much: “It makes you sound stupid.”
Fittingly, for a Sandberg alumnus, Scott looks at how radical candour plays out along gender lines; “It’s often the case that when a man is managing a woman he will pull his punches. From the time they are four years old, men are taught to be gentler with women but I think that can be really harmful in the workplace, when it results in women not getting feedback.” Similarly, when a woman is in power there’s an odd double standard: “When a woman is radically candid, she will get unjustly accused of being obnoxiously aggressive as people have this higher expectation of women to be sweetness and light. That can be really dangerous as it makes them want to shy away from challenging directly.”
Radical Candour may seem mean; encouraging you to offer opinions that may not always be pretty, but the inspiration is the idea of blending care with honesty. Fittingly, the original title was Tough Love. “Radical Candour is actually fundamentally really kind,” says Scott, “But there will be moments that sting a bit in the short term.”
So, want to be Scott-approved manager? Be a little mean to do a lot of good.