Radical Candor by Kim Scott

Before I joined Juice as Director of Engineering, I was at Emma, working as an individual contributor on a medium-sized team. Not only did I have a terrific manager, but we also had a brilliant VP of Engineering modeling open, empathetic, and egoless programming and leadership. Yep, I was very lucky.

When I sat down with the VP, Jason, to let him know I’d accepted the offer, he was thrilled for me… and we laughed, because there was no denying that this was a huge jump for me: from IC to leading multiple teams. I asked him, what should I be reading to prepare? Radical Candor was his first suggestion. With a subtitle like “Be a kick-ass boss without losing your humanity”, I wasn’t surprised: that’s how I saw Jason.

I can’t remember exactly why Jason told me he loved this book, but I can make some solid guesses. To start, he and Kim have pretty similar personalities and leadership styles. They’re both very caring but also quite firm. They’re crystal clear about what we’re here to do as engineers, which is ship software, but they also understand that work is only part of your life, and they want it to be a meaningful part of your life. They offer support but also have high expectations–especially if they’ve extended that support. Yeah, they can be a little intimidating–but they balance it with warmth and silliness in the right measure. Neither shy from the tough conversations. Both highly value management as a skill and practice.

As I read Radical Candor and more about Kim, I thought: this is Jason. And this is me, too. I want to create a collective sense of ownership and shared destiny on my team. I want to inspire trust in my engineers by offering context and creating consistent, transparent processes that are reliable but still flexible when they need to be. I want them to write clear, straightforward, and maintainable code. I want them to do hard shit and struggle, and fail, and also feel wildly happy when they succeed, because they’ve made something they’re proud of. And I want them to feel with every commit, a sense of purpose, because they’re clear on how their work builds toward bigger goals.

Does that resonate with you? Is that the kind of leader you want to be, too?

Radical Candor tells the story of a woman in tech who learns how to be an effective, compassionate, kick-ass boss over years of training under some of the most driven and exacting engineering executives in the world. Kim divides the story into two main parts. Part one covers the management philosophy of caring personally and challenging directly. Radically candid work requires you to bring your whole self to the job, create a culture of open communication, seek to understand what motivates the folks who work for you, and motivate by inspiring meaning. Part two, tools and techniques, offers specific advice for deepening relationships and establishing trust, effective praise and criticism, healthy team dynamics, and getting results.

Kim shares her lessons and failures generously, from crushed startups to painful firings. Stories are woven into frameworks, tips, and best practices that you can adopt for your team. It’s conversational, but still instructive. And when it’s time to get down to business, it’s super clear what’s actionable and how you can try it out. Often management and leadership books can both feel and bleed you dry, but Kim’s style is fresh, relatable, and energizing on every page.

In April I’m giving a talk at The Lead Developer NYC called Crucial Career Conversations. It’s the story of how I put Kim’s career conversations framework–with my own flourishes, of course–into action. I’m convinced that the way we’ve used the framework at Juice has helped our contributors sharpen their focus and goals and brought closeness to the team. The decisions and work coming out of career conversations haven’t always been easy, but they’ve been healthy and gratifying for the team and the individuals making them.

Many management books are careful to define the mechanics of management, but Radical Candor captures the soul of leadership.

If this book review sparked an interest in reading please check your local library and see if they have a copy. If you prefer to own a copy, I recommend looking at some of the smaller retailers or independent bookstores first. IndieBound.org’s Indie Bookstore Finder helps you find independent bookstores near you by entering your address, or if shopping online, try ThriftBooks, Magers & Quinn, Books-A-Million, or Better World Books. Finally, if Amazon.com is what works best for you, I implore you to at least shop through smile.amazon.com, which is their a-portion-to-charity portal. Learn more about shopping with Amazon Smile here. Affiliate links are not used on Leading with Spoons.