“Radical Candour” and staff culture

As we start preparing to hire our founding teaching team at Ark Soane Academy, I’ve been thinking a lot about staff culture. Speaking to a wise headteacher colleague recently, I was struck by her advice: “when you get that founding team together, there will be zero trust in the room.” She advised me to think deeply about how to build that trust so they can become a team that executes excellence. And she told me to read Kim Scott’s Radical Candour.

The combination of my colleague’s wisdom and reading Scott’s book have given me a clear steer on staff culture. Radical Candour is essentially about how to set up strong team relationships so you can hold each other to account and continually improve. In Scott’s latest introduction, she notes that she almost called the book “Compassionate Candour”, which I far prefer. What this means for Scott is that you need to both “care deeply” about each team member and “challenge directly.”

The book opens with the all-too recognisable story of the anonymised “Bob.” Bob came to her company with great references, but his first piece of work was sub-par. Rather than challenging him on it, Scott insincerely told him the work was great. This meant Bob assumed that this standard of work was acceptable, and continued with it. Which meant the team kept having to cover for him, and then they themselves stopped seeing why they should put so much effort in when Bob was praised for so little. Eventually, having avoided Bob in the office, Scott finally built up the courage to talk directly – and fired him.

Bob’s reaction? “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

It is easier to care deeply than it is to challenge directly – I’ve often fallen into the trap of what Scott calls “ruinous empathy”: “I won’t have that difficult conversation today because this person is feeling under the weather/has just come back from being ill/is having relationship problems.” And of course, sometimes it’s right to put off a conversation (in fact, Scott says picking people up on every little thing, in work as in relationships, is not advised: she suggests leaving “three things unsaid” each day). But ultimately, there are some hinge points where you do need to hold others to account.

A large part of this book explores the concept that you as the leader need to model welcoming feedback. In fact, if you are constantly seeking, inviting, relishing and (crucially) acting on feedback, you encourage this culture in your organization. People might not have to steel themselves for the “difficult conversation” if everyone is constantly saying: ‘what do you think? What could I change? How could I improve this?” It becomes part of the natural dialogue. Scott describes a culture at Google and Apple where the top leaders – CEOs, founders – would relish being shouted down by others, and thank them for being so direct. She cites Steve Jobs: “I don’t mind being wrong. And I’ll admit that I’m wrong a lot. It doesn’t really matter to me too much. What matters to me is that we do the right thing.”

So as leaders, we have a huge responsibility to always seek feedback, and then to genuinely act on it and show we have taken that feedback seriously to build that culture of constant improvement. This culture is especially crucial to an organization that is growing.

Scott talks of the particular nature of start-ups, which of course resonates strongly with me at this point: with a tiny team, everyone knows each other extremely well. You tend to find it easy to have radically candid conversations, because you know each other well and the care is evidently there. But as a start-up begins to grow, this does not scale. You can’t deeply know one hundred people in a genuine way. You can’t go around “just being honest” with people you haven’t built relationships with. That, Scott advises, makes you an “a**hole.” The trap is that people actually prefer a competent boss who is a “jerk” to an incompetent boss who is nice to them. The danger of this is that the jerks begin to flourish, and all of a sudden you have an organisational culture that becomes pretty toxic.

How do we guard against this? How do we safeguard the culture, while still being honest with each other about how we’re doing?

The first step, as above, is to model from above. Scott notes that for CEOs (headteachers), the way you line manage others will be mimicked by them: you influence your organization much more than you are ever aware (she tells the memorable story of a hold-up in making a shuttle bus for workers at one company because the team in charge looked at the CEO’s car and chose the same colours for the bus, which then took longer to make. The CEO hadn’t mentioned this and didn’t care what colour the bus was, but for those he managed they added weight to his every visible movement).

Secondly, perhaps having a dialogue of compassionate candour between line manager and managee, i.e. those who have formed a trusting relationship, is the best place for candour to remain. A positive culture focused on excellence can only be built when feedback is freely given and underpinned by the understanding that the person giving feedback genuinely cares about the person receiving it – and relationships do not scale in the way we imagine they do. But if everyone is continually seeking to improve with the support, guidance and challenge of those who know them the best – I think that’s a staff culture I’d want to be a part of.

If you like the sound of a staff culture focused on continual improvement, founded on genuine care for others, we’re starting to hire our founding team in December. Stay in touch!