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)

consistency, focus, innovation, leadership, life lessons, mindfulness, people management, sales

6 lessons from maternity leave

As I start my first days back at work after seven and a half months of maternity leave, I pause here, amongst the hustle and bustle of working parenthood, to reflect on what it taught me. Here are six of the best lessons I learnt.

Maternity leave was everything I hoped for, and yet nothing like I expected. It started with those tough first weeks that any mother will have buried at the back of her mind, when you are yourself exhausted from pregnancy and childbirth and excruciatingly sleep deprived, trying to care for an infant who is making possibly the biggest adjustment they will ever make, from inside the womb to the bright, crazy world we live in. Doing so for the first time, both you and your infant are on a steep learning curve and it sometimes feels like you’ll never make it to the top.

In fact you never do make it to the top of that curve: lesson number one is that nothing stays the same forever, or even, in fact, for a week. No sooner are you into a routine, than you’re out of it again as new developments change your baby’s rhythms. As a change-agent and innovator, I’ve always been comfortable with the uncertainty and exploration that comes with progress, but never have I experienced it in such an all-consuming way.

The second lesson, is that you are not in control. You may have read a dozen books, taken advice from other parents and determined your ideal approach to parenting, but many of your well-thought-out principles will seem impossible in the daily effort to make life work right now. Being constantly at the beck and call of another human being – and worse, hardwired to respond instantly and urgently to the slightest whimper – is a tough thing to accept when you’re used to being the decision-maker. This was tough for me, because I’ve never been good at being told what to do, but I learnt to accept it, at least for a little while. That’s probably made me a better person, and certainly has been a lesson in humility.

Lesson number three crept up on me: a gradual realisation over time that persistence and consistency reap their own rewards. In fact, you can help your child into patterns and habits that suit your household and feel like good habits for a lifetime, if only you are patient enough and never give in on those principles – just think about the end result, and wait for the wind to turn your way. That’s why it’s easier to sell something you believe in: your messaging is more easily flexible yet consistent if it’s rooted in fundamental beliefs rather than what you think people want to hear.

Lesson four is a philosophy for life: one that’s been repeated to me many times, but never so clearly. Cherish every moment. Make long-term plans, but enjoy each moment as it comes. Soon it will all be over. That golden time of just you and your baby, which at the time seems by turns interminably repetitive and frustratingly unpredictable, will soon be over: you’ll be back at work, or your baby will have grown into a boisterous toddler, and those first toothless smiles and honking laughs and clumsy grasps will be but a distant memory.

The fifth lesson has always been known to me, but never more clearly shown: the value of time. Much of child-rearing is in effect, killing time. How to get through the day having entertained the kids and, if you’re lucky, yourself; having done something educational or otherwise enriching for them; and maybe, if you’re lucky, having done enough in the way of other tasks to keep the household running. Killing time is not my favourite activity – I always want to be doing something useful – but on maternity leave I learnt to accept it, even enjoy it. Now, I’m grateful to the wonderful carers at my daughter’s nursery who are helping share that task, so that I can spend some time doing the job I love. And I know that every minute I spend working is a minute I could have spent with her, so I make it count.

Even more important than time, however, is attention. The sixth and final lesson is that focusing your attention on something is a luxury, especially in the modern world, and yet it is the most precious gift. Whether it’s my baby daughter or my teenage stepchildren, whatever else I give them, they most value my full and undivided attention. Similarly at work, I get far more done, far more effectively, if I focus my attention on the right things and concentrate. When I’m at work, I don’t think about my family; when I’m with my family, I don’t miss work. I’m not sure if I could tell you when I’m happiest, except that it’s when I’m not trying to do it all simultaneously. The gift of full attention and focus is one you should give yourself as often as possible.

Have you recently become a parent or had a break from work?  Comment below if you’d like to share the experience – I’d be interested to hear from you!

communication, networking

5 networking tips for beginners

A room full of strangers can be a daunting prospect – especially when the goal is not just to have a fun time but also to develop business leads and new contacts.  I’ve been fortunate enough to receive a lot of advice on networking over the years – some good, some bad, some middling.  Here are just five principles that I keep in mind, which I hope will help you make your networking more enjoyable and productive.

Know what you want

It sounds obvious: but so many people turn up to networking events not knowing why they’re there. Be clear about what you want from the event.  Are you looking for someone with specific skills, such as a lawyer, accountant or new finance director?  Maybe you’re looking for new customers, a new supplier, new employees or a new job – or perhaps all of the above!  It’s fine to have multiple ‘hats’ – in fact it makes it easy to find something in common with many people – just make sure you know what they are.  And if you’re just there to practice networking and meet some people, that’s fine too.  Set yourself a specific goal – such as talking to 5 new people, getting 3 business cards or finding some way to help at least one person in the room.

Do your homework

If a copy of the delegate list is provided in advance, make a note of the people you most want to speak to (based on your objectives), and get a general feel for who they are and what they do.  The more you know about someone, the easier it is to find topics of conversation.  It might also help you to feel more comfortable when you bump into someone whose name you recognise from your homework.

Find out what other people want

Listening is a cliché for a reason.   Ask plenty of questions when networking, and try and work out what people want and how you can help them.  This is a good principle anyway for a happy life, but in networking it specifically has three important functions.  Firstly, if you’re busy trying to solve someone’s problem, you forget to be nervous and you certainly don’t run out of topics of conversation.  Secondly, if you understand what they’re there for and whether you can help or not, you can understand when they say goodbye – and don’t take it personally.  Thirdly, what goes around, comes around, and that’s never truer than in a networking group, where people will remember past behaviour and treat you accordingly.  The person you helped out last week might just be the one who recommends you to a new client a year from now.

Use your network

Some people will tell you to not even speak to your colleagues or people you know in a networking group.  After all, you’re all there to network with new people, right?  Well yes, to a degree.  However, don’t feel afraid to use your network.  Ask the people you know to make an introduction for you to another contact of theirs in the room – a warm introduction is much better than a cold approach – or use them as an easy entry point into a group.  They will feel good about helping you out, and you will find it much easier to start conversations.  It’s also important to remember that you should be keeping an eye open for ways you can help your existing contacts as well as – or even more so than – your new ones.

Follow up

The homework doesn’t stop with your pre-event preparation.  If you collected some business cards, remember to follow up after the event with a quick ‘nice to meet you’ note or any follow-up introductions or information you promised.  It helps to cement you in people’s minds and makes them more likely to remember you next time!  And if, like I have on occasion, you discover you’ve collected 30 or 40 business cards in the space of a week and you can’t possibly find the time to do this for all of them, reassess the number of networking events you go to…and select the most important contacts to make contact with afterwards.

I hope you found those principles useful.  If you’ve got any other hints and tips for beginners to networking – or any questions – please do post in the comments below.

communication, presentation skills

The importance of stories

Early in 2012, my partner mentioned casually a conference that was being advertised around at his work. I jumped up and down with excitement and said we had to go – a far more enthusiastic response than he was expecting.

That’s how in November we came to be standing outside the Playhouse in Oxford, chatting to friends old and new, waiting for a long-anticipated experience: TEDx Oxford. It wasn’t a disappointment. The talks were fantastic: interesting, inspiring and entertaining. Very much on a par with all of the TED talks I’ve seen at

That got me thinking: what was it that made those talks so good? I’ve seen plenty of good speakers, heard and participated in many 15-20 minute presentations, kept to time to avoid boring the audience: so how come these particular 20-minute talks were so good? James Rhodes on piano and the number-magician were obviously special, but many used PowerPoint and covered serious topics like global treaties and child poverty.

The key, I think, was the storytelling. Every presenter had a story: either a personal story, or a series of anecdotes, or a thread through recent world events. The stories kept us interested, and helped us engage with their topic, relate to their points of view, connect their message with our own experience.

So what makes a good story? A good story starts with something intriguing – it makes us ask ‘so what happens next?’ It describes things in terms we understand and are interested in. And it connects with us on an emotional level – it has to answer the question ‘so why should I care?’

The last of those is hugely important – and where I think TED wins every time, because the presenters are talking about things they really care about, their passions: and that commitment and emotion comes through in their stories, and helps us, the audience, to identify with their causes. It’s why I can’t imagine having a job where I need to sell something I don’t truly believe is useful to the person I’m selling to. And why those TED talks struck a chord with me, even though I occasionally disagreed with their ideas.

Since going to the conference, I’ve been reminded of an ongoing desire to watch a few TED talks now and again. Whilst painting my dining room the other day, I found this one by Sarah Kay, poet and storyteller extraordinaire.

Sometimes stories don’t really need to have a beginning, a middle and an end in quite the way you imagine, but they have to have heart. This one is full of heart. Are yours?

business management, entrepreneurship, sales

Benefits, not features: but benefits to whom?

Sell the benefits, not the features.  It’s one of the most basic of sales lessons, and has been said many times before.  What often remains unsaid is ‘the benefits to whom?’  It’s really important that you work out who you’re selling to, and put yourself in their shoes.

One classic example is investors versus customers.  I sit on a dry-run panel in Oxford, UK for companies looking to get angel investment.  Most of the companies who pitch have a decent presentation.  Some of them (much to my delight), start with ‘I can solve this problem for my customers’ rather than  ‘my product/technology is great, it works like this’.  However very few start with ‘my company is a good investment because…’ They’ve taken on the benefits not features message, but have forgotten to adjust to the audience.  Show an investor that you have a big market hungry for your unique solution, you’re an experienced team and you know who will buy you out or what your exit strategy is.  Convince them that you’re an opportunity not to be missed and that their money will come back many fold – and then back it up by describing why your customers will buy, how your technology works and how you will beat off competitors.  All of the detail is important, but the investors need to be inspired, need to see some clear benefits to themselves before they’re interested in those details.

The same goes for any presentation.  You have just a few minutes to convince someone to pay attention to what you have to say: so start with the benefits to them, and then move on to the detail once they’re convinced it’s worth listening.  Put yourself in their shoes, and ask the crucial question: why do I care?

Got any other tips and tricks for working out what your audience wants to know?  Has the ‘why do I care?’ question helped you change your perspective before?  Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.