Author of Radical Candor
Kim Scott is author of Radical Candor—a book so well known in the technology industry that is has been parodied on HBO’s Silicon Valley and in the Dilbert comic strip!
But her impact has spread far beyond the technology industry. The book, now in its second edition, has been translated into 20 languages and sold more than half a million copies worldwide. Kim works with clients around the globe.
As Kim says, “If you abstract it out, what is radical candor? It is care personally and challenge directly at the same time. It’s about love and truth. There’s no culture on earth that doesn’t think love and truth are important human values.”
We had a wide-ranging conversation covering:
- How she became an expert in honest and compassionate feedback
- How the book has become a platform, with online courses, coaching, and now a sitcom
- Why and how her message is misunderstood (the basis for those parodies) and what she’s doing about it
- Why it took her four years to finish the book that she thought would take three months to write
- How to find your writing pace and joy
Find the full interview below.
- Find out more about the workshops, coaching, and training offered by her team at Radical Candor.
- Find Radical Candor on Amazon or order it from BookShop.org.
Listen to the Interview
Read the Transcript
Anne (A): Thanks, Kim, for joining me today, in this our shelter-at-home time.
Kim (K): It’s a pleasure to be here with you. It’s like a little return to normalcy.
A: Let’s grab every moment of normalcy we can.
Finding her area of expertise
A: I want to talk with you about Radical Candor. You have written a book that is very well known, certainly in the technology industry, but at this point far and wide in the business industry. I’d like to talk about how you went from tuning your own leadership practices to sharing and training others to become better leaders. How did you make that shift from expert practitioner to a platform leader?
K: The short answer is: totally accidentally. What happened was, I was at Google. After my kids were born, I realized the thing that I loved the most about my job, and the thing that got me out of my bed in the morning, was not Cost per Click—although that was going very well at Google. Rather, it was the opportunity to work with a great team of people and to build the kind of environment in which people really enjoy coming to work. Am I allowed to curse?
K: I call it creating these bullshit-free zones at work. Trying to the maximum extent possible to take the nonsense out of people’s days, and give them the opportunity to take a step in the direction of their dreams. I started looking around at Google for opportunities where that, instead of cost-per-click, could be my day job.
Around that time, my favorite professor from business school, Richard Tedlow, called me up. He said, “I’ve left Harvard and joined Apple and we’re trying to create these new courses that help leaders be better leaders. Would you like to learn more?” I said, “Of course.” With that, I left Google and I joined Apple. I worked with a great team of people developing a course called “Managing at Apple.” Most of my life was coming from my own startups and from Google, not Apple. But it turns out that managing is very similar across industries, across companies, even if the companies are very different, because people are people. There’s a lot that’s different about people, but we have even more similarities.
I designed this course at Apple, then a friend of mine from Google became CEO of Twitter. His name is Dick Costolo. He said, “Would you come help me design Managing at Twitter?” Lo and behold, managing at Twitter was almost exactly like managing at Apple, which was almost exactly like managing at Google. I thought, “This is kind of a universal thing.”
Then Dick announced in a press interview that I was his CEO coach. All of a sudden I had a lot of clients—more clients than I could handle. I love coaching, but coaching doesn’t scale. You can only properly help about five people at a time.
Scaling her impact
K: I decided I would try to scale myself and write this book, which became Radical Candor. I started doing talks and workshops as I was writing it, to see the best way to communicate the ideas. That was great fun.
Then I sold the book and I had a little time on my hands. It turns out there’s a long time between the time you sell a book and when it gets published. I lived in Silicon Valley, and inevitably, someone’s like: “You should start a company! There’s an app for that!”
Indeed, I started this company. We tried to build an app that would help people put the ideas in the book into practice. We built one app, and it didn’t really work. We built another app, and it didn’t really work. We built the third app, and it still wasn’t really working. I was at a performance my daughter was in and I was filming her on my phone. I happened to glance up from the phone at one point and look at my actual, physical daughter. She was up on stage singing, Believe It or Not, It’s Just Me. My eyes filled with tears, and I realized, “What am I thinking?” The whole point of radical candor is to help people remember to put their phones away, look each other in the eye and have a real human conversation.
We focused on the things that don’t scale: talks and workshops. They don’t scale, but they do work. What are ways we can help people put these ideas into practice?
When you write a book about feedback, you’re going to get a lot of feedback.
I got a lot of feedback, and it was pretty consistent: “It’s really easy for you, Kim, to say ‘be radically candid.’ It’s really hard for me to do it, and for me to teach my team to do it.” How can you help, and how can you help at scale?
Even if you train a bunch of great people, there are only so many talks and workshops that you can do, and only so many companies who can afford to pay for an in-person talk or workshop.
We started thinking about ways to scale this. I talked to Kelly Leonard at Second City, from the improv school in Chicago. He wrote a great book called Yes, And. I was on his podcast. We started thinking that so much of radical candor is improv. Much of what we’re talking about helping people do is finding ways to practice being better human beings. Not just better managers, but being better people—having better conversations. If you learn to be an engineer or play piano, we have drills and practices. Where’s the human practice?
We began developing workshops with Second City. Then we realized, one great way to explain to people what radical candor is and isn’t and how to put it into practice would be to make a sitcom, and to show how managers struggle with this—that’s where the humor comes in. But also show how they get it right. We developed this show called The Feedback Loop. It’s sort of like The Office, but it teaches you how to get things right instead of just showing you how things go wrong. It’s five short episodes. Now we’re helping companies roll this out at scale—even in these times. You can do these virtual viewing parties with teams, which runs out to be a fun way to bond in this crazy moment we find ourselves in.
On radical candor
A: I love the story of what you did here. Interestingly enough, you say you found your expertise by accident, but in many ways, you taught your way to expertise. The teaching made you analyze and define. Also, your growth was triggered by your relationships with people. The people you had nurtured your relationships with showed you the way by inviting you to do courses, and saying “You’re my executive coach.” It is serendipitous, but also those relationships are clearly the product of what you do—of living and breathing what you preach.
K: I hope so! I hope I walk the walk. Most of the time I do, but it’s hard for me, too. One of the reasons I wrote the book is that radical candor doesn’t feel natural. What feels natural, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Figuring out how to help people overcome those instincts, which have been instilled on us since we learned to speak, that is the trick of radical candor.
A: I can see how I would fall into the Ruinous Empathy camp, and I’m certainly not alone in that.
K: No, you’re in very good company.
A: What you’re offering is so generous. Let’s talk for a moment about the book because it has been published in dozens of languages.
K: Yes, like 20 languages, which has been really exciting to see it spread. The other day, in the morning I was working with a client in Turkey, and in the evening I was working with a client in China. It’s cool.
A: You would think that there’s a strong cultural component to this, and yet the need for this is cross-cultural.
K: If you abstract out, what is radical candor? It is care personally and challenge directly at the same time. What does that mean? It’s about love and truth. There’s no culture on earth that doesn’t think love and truth are important human values.
A: I picked up and read the book, and you describe it so beautifully, and use so many wonderful stories that really bring it to life in a meaningful way. Now I look forward to watching the sitcom. What a genius way to reach other people in a different way than the book and the workshops.
On being misunderstood (and parodied)
A: I have to ask: you know that you have made a cultural impact when you are parodied on HBO’s Silicon Valley and you show up in Dilbert.
K: It’s good to be mocked. Both of those resulted in tremendous book sales. They can mock me more if they want.
A: Obviously, the parodies arise from a deep misunderstanding of your message, that radical candor is an excuse to be a jerk.
K: To act like a jerk, yes. That is the most common misunderstanding. I’ll walk into a room and someone will say, “In the spirit of radical candor…” and then they’ll behave like a garden-variety jerk. That is not the spirit of radical candor!
A: Clearly someone did not read beyond the title page.
K: Or even past the title.
A: How do you deal with that? When you get this feedback, it has to be frustrating: “People, have you read this?” Do you let it roll off your back? Do you just say, “Yes, it sold books”?
K: It actually prompted us to publish a second edition of Radical Candor. All joking aside, there is a real misunderstanding of radical candor.
There are companies and leaders who use radical candor as an excuse to behave really badly. That bothered me at a fundamental level.
Obviously, you want people to understand your message in the way you intended. It really made me think: Was there a better way for me to have described Radical Candor?
In the second edition, we offer people an alternative to the Radical Candor Framework. If you’re in an organization where people are abusing Radical Candor, and using it as an excuse to act like a jerk, we want you to pass around this framework, which his the Compassionate Candor framework. It was interesting. I had thought about calling the book Compassionate Candor instead of Radical Candor. To be totally frank, part of the reason I didn’t call it Compassionate Candor was I was afraid people would say, “This is a bunch of soft, feminine leadership b.s.”
Not only did it prompt me to write the second edition and offer people the term Compassionate Candor, it’s also prompted me to write another book called Just Work that really focused on gender injustice in the workplace, and how gender injustice can make it much more difficult to be radically candid in the workplace, and to be successful, frankly. And, what you can do about bias, prejudice and bullying in the workplace, as well as discrimination and harassment.
I took the feedback and did something with it.
A: You did something very constructive with it. To some extent, we lose control of the message when it’s out, but you are not letting people hide under the umbrella of Radical Candor.
K: I felt like I owed it to the message to be clear about what it was and what it wasn’t, and to take some ownership for misunderstanding.
A: Words are so loaded. “Radical” gets attention.
K: It was a very successful title, but like a lot of successful things, it can cut both ways.
From book to platform
A: Now you are scaling up, you have co-founded another group, you are working on training for your Radical Candor organization. You’ve got a bunch of people to do coaching, you’re working with partners internationally. What is the specific audience you’re hoping to reach? Is it very broad?
K: Very broad, yes. Radical Candor is focused on managers. Increasingly, we’re finding that managers want us to reach out to the broader organization, to help them create a culture of radical candor. Often, what we’re doing with our customers is high-touch workshops with leaders of the company and some of these more scalable solutions for broader audiences at the companies.
It’s gone well beyond tech. Definitely Radical Candor took off first in tech, but we have worked with all different kinds of companies: some heavy manufacturing companies, elevator companies, we’ve work with companies in Ohio that make heavy equipment. We’ve worked with a bunch of finance companies, ranging from banks to private equity firms. We’ve found that the message resonates quite broadly within different industries and also organizationally, from the CEO to the more recent employees.
A: I don’t think you can find an industry that doesn’t have an example of toxic workplaces that need constructive feedback.
K: Unfortunately, it’s a very broad problem.
A: But it’s one that gets you out of bed every day to solve.
On writing a nonfiction book
A: Looking back on this journey, when did the first edition of Radical Candor come out?
A: So it’s three years. So looking back over this three-year journey, there’s a lot of work beforehand as you were preparing the book and teaching the courses.
K: Because I had designed these courses and taught these courses, I thought I could write Radical Candor in three months. Four years later, I was finally finished.
It turns out, it takes a long time to write a book if you take it seriously.
But I’ve always written. In many ways, my business career was a strange way to subsidize my novel writing habit. I love the writing process. I enjoyed it tremendously. But, it’s definitely takes a long time.
A: Yes, you think it’s all in your head, then you go to write it and there’s a lot more.
K: And you start arguing with yourself. Do I really believe that? No, I don’t.
A: You have to think deeply to do it. That’s the mistake people make about writing a book they’re expert in. You become a different kind of expert in writing the book. It’s not because you’ve published a book, it’s because of the work you’ve done in writing it.
K: And in getting feedback on it. I had, at one point, a hundred collaborators on the Google Doc where I was writing Radical Candor. I tried to get a lot of feedback on this book, and it made it better. It worked.
A: A hundred collaborators? That’s impressive.
Advice for other authors
A: So, what advice would you give to someone who had a similar cause they’re impassioned about, and they want to make a difference in the world by sharing their writing, but sharing their ideas through writing or other means. Is there advice you would give someone?
K: If you want to write a book, the most important thing is that you’ve got to take a deep breath and find a way to enjoy the process of writing. It’s a long process. It can be enjoyed, but it can also be cruel and unusual punishment.
I would say the first most difficult thing is getting inside your own head and finding a writing schedule that works for you. Could I work four hours straight? No, I could not. I found an hour and a half, then take a call or take a walk, or do a walk and a call at the same time, worked for me. Find the schedule that works for you and that allows you to keep your energy up and your interest levels up, then stick to it. You’ve got to write every single day. You’ve got to write for a good chunk of time. It doesn’t have to be full time, but you have to give at least an hour and a half a day.
The very hardest thing about writing is getting back out of your head. Finding some people whose thinking you admire, who you trust, to edit that book, and more than one, is really important to the process. Because you can’t get out of your head without other people.
A: You’re right. The Curse of Knowledge. We know what we know, and we can’t see what’s there and what’s not there, and what people don’t understand.
K: Some things will be so clear to you, and you’ll write them, and other people will have no idea what you’re saying.
A: One of the tricks on that, feedback-related, is getting the right kind of feedback. One of the things I ask people to tell me is, where do you get bored? Where are you confused? Where did you stop and read twice? They don’t necessarily have to fix it—the value is telling you how it landed with them. You can try to figure out how to fix it then.
K: Different people edit differently. Some people really want to try to fix it for you. That’s fine—let them. But you’re probably not going to accept their language. It’s your book, after all. But the way they fix it will be educational for you.
A: You still see where they’re fixing it and what they’re trying to get at.
K: Right. You’ll see what was confusing for them. I think, let people edit in the way that works for them. Don’t criticize the criticism you get.
A: Right, but you still are the captain of the ship. I love your idea that you have to find the joy in the process. Set it up so it’s that way, or else, why?
K: I was very lucky with Radical Candor. But there were four other books I wrote that never saw the light of day. That was okay because I enjoyed writing them.
You have to find the intrinsic pleasure in writing. Otherwise, it’s too discouraging.
A: I think, as a reader, you can tell when you’re reading something that someone’s slogging through a checklist to put out. Something carries through there in terms of how it lands.
Thank you for sharing your story. That’s great advice. And what a journey from being invited to teach a class to where you are now, producing sitcoms that are going to correct all the problems of “The Office.”
K: Let’s hope so. From your mouth to God’s ears.
A: I really appreciate your taking the time to share that story with us. Thanks so much.
K: Thank you for encouraging other writers. Virginia Woolf said, why do I want to encourage so many other writers? The reason is, I love to read. I have this fear of running out of books. So I love reading, and I love to encourage other writers.
A: You and me both. Thank you.