Radical Candor in the Boardroom

To promote high performing teams, approaches like radical candor can be of great value. The concept of challenging directly but caring personally creates a better environment. Boards of directors should make concerted efforts to establish honest and trusting environments. Used thoughtfully radical candor can inspire change and growth.

By Kevin Smith

Recently, I ran across the concept of “Radical Candor” from Kim Scott, while preparing a session I was presenting at a conference. The terms itself, Radical Candor, feels much edgier and biting than what I had been looking at and it drew my curiosity. Naturally, everything I dig into quickly gets reframed as to how it relates to credit union boards of directors. This was no different. But here it wasn’t a perfect fit, though there is serious merit in how this concept could (should) get traction with boards.

The Source

Author Kim Scott has quite a professional pedigree, having been part of AdSense, YouTube and DoubleClick teams at Google, as well as a CEO coach at Dropbox, Qualtrics, and Twitter among others. She’s been a manager, a boss and a leader in a lot of different scenarios. She’s very candid about how she learned, the mistakes she made and how she developed the concept of radical candor and wrote the book.

The Concept

The concept is fairly simple and it uses a 2×2 which is the rule for card carrying consultants. 🙂 The x axis is the degree to which you challenge your employees directly. The y axis shows the degree to which you care personally. (See graphic and cover.) That’s really it. As she puts it, “You don’t have to choose between being a pushover and a jerk…you can be kind and clear at the same time.” The key to this approach is to be direct with people, but to “give a damn” about them and make it clear that you support them. It’s really simple. Of course, the implementation of this opens a variety of cans of worms, because, after all, we are human beings that are complex, nuanced … and emotional.

The Goals

The book is absolutely geared to making people better “bosses.” So how does this relate to boards of directors who operate distinctly outside of a corporate hierarchy by being peers in the boardroom? Scott indicates that the three core responsibilities of bosses are to:

  1. Create a culture of compassionate candor
  2. Build a cohesive team
  3. Achieve results collaboratively

These are goals for the board as well.

The Need

My experience with boards of directors around the United States suggests that we could use a lot more radical candor (compassionate candor) in the boardroom. This is hard enough for bosses to achieve with their direct reports and the board setting has further challenges. As groups of directors, it’s critical that we address issues, failures and lack of performance from colleagues on the board. This doesn’t happen nearly enough and many boards “tolerate” certain director who don’t live up to the needs of the organization. Of course, this candor has to be accompanied by deep personal care for each other and the support that this requires.

Now, I’m giving very short shrift to Scott’s concept here, providing only a thumbnail sketch of everything involved. I encourage you to read the book, explore some articles or videos on the concept and see what you think. She provides a very detailed approach and order of operations for executing this along with great examples of the process.

How to Adapt

Unfortunately, this isn’t a hand and glove fit for boards, as we don’t have bosses. And I haven’t worked through all of the nuance that Scott does. But I want you to consider how this might be a value for a peer group like your board. There’s significant value here. Don’t you think?

Here’s a suggestion from Scott as to how to start building this culture:

  1. Be the first to solicit criticism from your peers.
  2. Gauge the conversations as you give criticism: If your listener is upset, ratchet up the care personally side of things. If they are not hearing you, challenge more directly.
  3. Encourage all candor and discussions.

We owe it to each other and to the credit unions to which we pledge an oath of office to work at the highest level possible.

I want to hear your thoughts.


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