book review, business management, communication, leadership

Book Review: Radical Candor by Kim Scott

In Radical Candor, Kim Scott lays out her thesis for how to be a good boss.  The premise is deceptively simple: be both challenging and caring with your people.   The book starts with laying out a philosophy which may be familiar to many: that relationships with the people on your team are the most important management tools, and that working collaboratively and motivating people is the best way to drive results.  It goes on to describe a step by step process for creating the right culture and managing people on a day-to-day basis.

“Radical candor” is coined as a phrase to describe being direct and honest with your feedback in order to drive results, whilst also caring deeply for individuals.  This two-by-two matrix, with caring personally on one axis and challenging directly on the other, is the framework on which the entire thesis hangs. When I started to think about Ruinous Empathy and Obnoxious Aggression, I could immediately recall examples from my own experience where due to a lack of bravery in challenging people, or frustration over a particular action, I had myself slipped into those quadrants.  Balancing the task and the relationship, or criticism with caring, is undoubtedly a challenge we all face in management and in other areas of life. This framework for me brought to life an awareness of the boundaries between the quadrants, and how to spot and correct yourself when you drift into unhelpful communication.

Kim Scott also emphasises the value of culture, a principle which I wholeheartedly agree with.  The well-used and multi-attributed phrase “culture eats strategy for lunch” has always resonated with me, and when you consider the impact of many, many small interactions between your team members every day, you realise quickly that helping others to adopt whatever framework you choose is just as important as abiding by it yourself.  One aspect of culture which she brings to life for me is the treatment of ‘superstars’ who want to grow, move on and get better, versus ‘rock stars’, who are extremely competent at their jobs and want to stay there.  Finding ways to identify, reward and incentivise both groups is something many organisations don’t seem to have cracked.

I’m finding it challenging to pick out just a few key lessons to take away, as there was so much meat in this book: it’s a real manual for caring managers who want to get stuff done.  Much of the advice might seem obvious: listening techniques, how to solicit and give feedback, what it means to care personally about someone.  Some of my favourite tricks were included: being clear about ‘debate’ versus ‘decision-making’, having honest career conversations with your direct reports, hiring for culture more than experience.  Perhaps the most useful element, however, is the way this book integrates good management/feedback/communication advice into a framework which acknowledges and embraces common management techniques – including meetings such as 1:1s, staff meetings, etc., and talks about how to be radically candid, and therefore effective, with each of these elements.  You may not agree with absolutely everything, but it is certainly laid out with clarity and practicality, in a way that allows for easy ‘cherry-picking’ of the most useful elements.

Overall, Scott lays out an attractively simple and elegant framework by which to measure your management behaviour, coupled with detailed advice on how to get to where you want to be within the framework.  That advice covers both personal skills such as listening and giving feedback, as well as some thoughts on how to use meetings and management tools.  It focuses on the relationships between you and your direct reports, making a powerful statement about their importance to your effectiveness.  If there is a criticism, it would be that the book draws in principles (such as good listening) from several areas covered by other books, such that you may feel some segments are already familiar. However unlike many management / self-improvement books, its value cannot be summarised in a few bullet points, but comes with the detailed anecdotes, examples and arguments laid out in the text.  Definitely worth a read for anyone who aspires to be a good boss.

Photo credit: Wakefield Morys-Carter (who was fortunate enough to see Kim at a conference)

book review, psychology, self-control, self-management

Book review: Willpower

Willpower: Rediscovering our greatest strength

Author: Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney

Date published: 2012

Topic: Personal success / self-improvement

Willpower is a book about just that: the self-control – aka willpower – needed to resist temptation, make good choices, perform better at work and better regulate your emotions. In it, Baumeister and Tierney argue that far from the modern belief that self-esteem is the answer, more self-control or self-discipline enables you to achieve more and be happier. They show evidence that the two factors which most predict success are self-control and IQ, and argue that unlike intelligence, it might be possible to improve one’s stock of self-control – or at least how far it goes – through simple exercises and judicious choice of use.

The thesis is an alluring one. At last, something that affects every aspect of our lives – from interactions with our families, to the decisions we make at work, the money we spend and the food we eat – that can be easily improved by anyone. In reality, the book suggests that your overall stock of willpower may not improve with exercise, but what does happen is that it’s used more sparingly for everyday tasks, leaving you more in the tank for important choices and relationships.

Baumeister and Tierney describe willpower as a muscle, which, like our physical muscles, requires glucose to operate effectively, is depleted throughout the day as it’s used, and is recharged by rest and a good night’s sleep. They suggest that willpower is expended on all sorts of tasks throughout the day, including resisting temptations, making decisions and controlling one’s thoughts, emotions and actions. Because the same stock of willpower is used for all these things, you can immediately see that conserving willpower for the most important things is key. Sure enough, those who exhibit the strongest willpower in fact expend less on day-to-day temptations and decisions. Instead, they’ve used their willpower to set up positive habits and routines which take away the need to make small decisions (‘Shall I have a shower today? When shall I brush my teeth?) or resist temptations (like the chocolate in the fridge).

From a self-improvement point of view, the book offers two main pieces of advice. One is about making the most of the willpower you’ve got, the other is about increasing your self-control stamina (i.e. decreasing your depletion of willpower for a given task) by exercising the willpower muscle.

To make the most of the willpower you’ve got, in order to make good choices, the authors bring together some classic advice that’s probably quite familiar to you:

  1. Sleep and eat well to avoid unnecessary depletion;
  2. Have long-term goals and aspirations, but then make short-term, specific actions for your to-do list;
  3. Precommit to a particular course of action (to avoid having to make the decision every single time you come across that scenario), and use implementation intention (if x happens I will do y) to think through stressful situations in advance with a cool head;
  4. Monitor your progress. For extra effect, delegate the monitoring to someone else: a friend, family members or a higher power;
  5. Invest your limited stock of willpower in creating good habits and making small changes that will make your life better overall.

To increase your self-control stamina – i.e. avoid depletion of willpower – exercise it regularly. Suggested exercises include improving your posture (straightening up every time you think about it), using the other hand for activities you’d normally do with your dominant hand, or trying to improve your speech vocabulary. In essence, anything that gets you to regularly override a habit and reform it into something else acts to exercise your willpower. Ideally, of course, this should be something you’re looking to improve on anyway, so you can develop good new habits and exercise your willpower at the same time

Overall, this book is an interesting read with a credible theses backed up by numerous examples, and if you can follow the advice you may well become more effective at home and at work. It does ramble a little – the chapters are not as structured as I would have liked, and there is some repetition – and the main benefits can probably be gained by following the 5 bullet points above without reading the entire book. However it was an enjoyable read and if you like to impress your friends with anecdotes to back up your claims – or you need more convincing of the hypothesis – it’s definitely worth a look. For me, it was preaching to the converted, as many aspects of the advice resonate as an approach that I’ve unconsciously followed for most of my life.