I came across a video the other day that had this catchy title – Radical Candor. I watched it and was intrigued by the talk AND its implication to agile teams, organizational transformations, and sustainable cultures.
Kim Scott was the presenter in the video and she was sharing lessons she’d learned in her leadership journey at Apple and Google. In a nutshell, she was advocating radical candor for leaders in communicating with their direct reports.
The stories she told made me think about my own career and leadership journey. A couple of which I’d like to share with you.
A Story about Peter
In the early 1990’s I worked for a company called Micrognosis in Danbury, CT. I was the VP of Software and the company focused on applications for the trading systems market. We had a worldwide software development team and, for a long time, were quite successful.
I remember a young engineer who worked for our operations team. His name was Peter and he was a relatively recent graduate from Carnegie Mellon University. To say that Peter was high energy, was an understatement. In my few dealings with him, he was sort of, all over the place in his thinking and work habits. But he seemed like a genuinely nice kid who was trying very hard to find his niche in our company.
Our operations team was responsible for assembling and testing our systems before they were sent to clients. Think of them as a DevOps team of sorts. Peter was one of the few classic software engineers on the team.
Jim was the VP in charge of Operations and Peter reported directly to him. Mostly because there were few pure software developers in the group and Jim assigned him to a lot of special projects.
One day I was talking to Jim and he brought up that Peter was basically failing in his role. That nobody wanted to work with him. That his projects were never really completed, as he would quickly get diverted onto something else. In a nutshell, that Peter was incompetent and that he was planning on terminating him within a few weeks.
While I understood some of the behaviors Jim shared, I was unsettled about the conclusion. To the point, that I offered to take Peter on my organization and try a reclamation project. Giving him a new home and a second chance. Not surprisingly, Jim jumped at the chance and Peter joined my team the very next week.
Before I met with Peter for the first time, I asked our HR team for all of the feedback Jim had been giving him over his nearly 3-years in the company. I was interested in following up on the feedback and understanding how and where Peter had lost his way.
I was a little surprised when all I received was annual review forms, three of them. I had thought Jim would have placed Peter under a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) as well. Especially since he was planning on firing him.
I was even more surprised when I read the reviews. I was upset, disgusted, and disappointed, all at the same time.
Nowhere in them did Jim even minimally mention the things he had shared with me. Instead, he only talked in glowing terms about Peter’s performance and impact to the company. In fact, in the most recent review cycle, Peter had received a promotion and was in the top 10% of company-wide salary increases.
I scheduled a meeting with Peter to welcome him on board. He entered my office incredibly excited. He had finally moved into a home where he could write code full-time. Unfortunately, I had to burst his excitement with some bad news. Given the state of affairs with Jim’s lack of feedback and Peter’s performance history, I felt that the only congruent thing to do was to place him on an immediate PIP.
Talk about a shock. Peter was floored by the news and he got quite emotional about it. I told him that we had failed to give him honest performance feedback for three years. I apologized for the poor leadership he had experienced and I promised to always deal with him honestly and openly. He needed some time, so I sent him home for a few days to think about things.
To his credit, Peter decided to work through things and took to the PIP feedback incredibly well. So well, that I soon cancelled it. Fast forward 6-12 months and he quickly became one of our rock star engineers.
Shame on Jim for wimping out as a leader! And not providing candor to Peter.
A Sad Story of Sprint Demo Feedback
Now for you folks who are saying that the Peter story was so long ago that it’s no longer relevant. Things like that don’t happen anymore. Not today!
I’ve got a more recent story to tell. Much more recent.
I was coaching an organization that was newly adopting agile. They had installed Scrum and had been operating in that model for about 6 months. They were actually bringing work back onshore in an effort to re-energize their product vision and development efforts.
I was walking in the hallway when their senior VP of Technology stopped me to ask a question. It seemed as if she was quite upset and I asked why. She said that she had just left a couple of team sprint demos. The organization used a Fist of Five technique to gather sprint success feedback from the attendees. And she had voted a ‘5’ for one team. A ‘5’ in this context meant the team had hit it out of the park. That their sprint was a raging success.
I asked, what’s wrong with that? It sounds like the team did a great job.
Well, she said. The sprint was really a ‘2’, or no, it was really a ‘1’. I was incredibly disappointed with their lack of progress and they really missed the mark in delivering the proper feature functionality. And the demo was very poorly prepared and orchestrated.
At this point, I was confused. Why didn’t you vote ‘2’ or ‘1’ and give them that feedback? Wasn’t it a wonderful opportunity to do so?
Well, she said: Bob it is the South and we need to be polite to people. And I really don’t think they can handle the truth. So, I voted a ‘5’ and I’ll ask their manager to give them the direct feedback privately.
Basically, I lowered my head, sighed, and walked away.
This is another example of a leader avoiding feedback. In doing their job. And in both cases, doing significant damage to the cultural dynamics and to the people.
Back to center
Let me be crystal clear in my feedback.
I think we all have a responsibility to provide open, honest feedback in our organizations. My two examples are centered on leader communications downward. However, the ability to communicate effectively extends in all directions. And the examples as well.
I see team members who avoid having the tougher conversations at the team level. Often, they look for someone else to do it for them; for example, the ScrumMaster. Or they say things in public that they contradict in private conversations as they vent about an individual.
It happens with leadership teams as well. Instead of having congruent and candor-led conversations amongst themselves, often the hard conversations are avoided entirely. That is until someone else has them, or the person gets fired, or they leave the company. Then they
Again, avoidance, perhaps based on “southern hospitality” or “politically correctness” seems to be the rule.
But there is nothing hospitable or correct about it. These folks are taking the lazy way out; finding excuses for not being a straight-shooter in their communications. They’ll find a billion reasons for not telling truth and not one for doing so. And the worst part, they’re rarely aware of it.
In Jim’s case above, he was so casual and matter of fact about it, that when I confronted him he really didn’t understand the problem.
Another phrase used in the southern US, when you want to say something bad about someone is:
Well, bless their little heart!
While on the surface that seems benign, I hope I’ve provided some incentive for you to rethink how you give feedback. Especially if you’re in a leadership role.
I’m personally convinced of three facts related to feedback:
- All leaders struggle with it. And lean towards obfuscation, beating around the bush, or avoidance.
- All organizations and teams struggle with it as well. And lean towards absolute avoidance or looking for someone else to do the heavy lifting.
- The right thing to do is to say it with Radical Candor.
Hopefully, we all can start committing to truth-telling over sugar-coating. If not doing it for yourself, do it for the folks who need to receive candor-based feedback.
And bless your little heart if you don’t see it that way…
Stay agile my friends,
And here are a few follow-up links:
her company: https://www.radicalcandor.com/