In her book, Radical Candor. Be a Kick-Ass Boss, Without Losing Your Humanity author Kim Scott relays the story of arriving to her office at Google to find a couch had been moved to a place where it forced people to take a few extra steps to get around it. As Kim was moving the couch, the remark was made, “It looks like Kim has a new job.” Kim had a great response: “If something is in your way, it is always your job to fix it.” Two years after leaving Google, Kim returned to the office to visit a friend and saw a slogan on the wall: “On the AdSense team, we move couches!”
If that snippet shows the power of the individual in shaping business culture, stories from Patty McCord’s book “Powerful. Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility” show how shaping a business culture collides with a powerful shaping of our world. As former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix, McCord relays the inescapable reality of Netflix’s impact on our broader culture, as well as what it was like to be “on the inside,” at the precipice of such monumental change.
Thoughts and Reflections:
There was a consistent theme that ran through both of these books exploring management styles and company culture, and it really resonated with me. Both authors stressed the need to clearly understand, articulate and acknowledge the reality of the current situation with the entire team. This kind of relentless transparency often requires what people would normally classify as difficult conversations, but both authors would push back against that and argue the conversations are not inherently difficult, but are made that way by bad management practices and the fact that they are not more commonplace. Chapter 3 of McCord’s book, titled “Humans Hate Being Lied to and Being Spun,” reveals she knew she was in a whole new world as early as her initial interview with Netflix CEO and co-founder Reed Hasting. After questioning her and receiving what he felt were less-than radically authentic answers, Reed called out the “HR-speak” that McCord was using. When her husband asked how the interview went, she responded, “Well, I got into a fight with the CEO,” and admitting, deep down, she valued and respected the interaction they had and what it said about his leadership.
Both anecdotes point to a universal truth that I think has incredible relevance in education: truth and transparency can be powerful change agents. When I taught, everyone knew which teachers desperately needed to improve, but the elephant in the room only grew as it remained undiscussed. While there’s definitely no shortage of critics of the teacher evaluation system – and efforts to improve it has often made the problems worse – are we as teachers really unable to practice radical candor with our peers? As educators, we can’t have it both ways, we can’t say that we are truly interested in the best interests of our students and every day let mediocre teaching habits propagate in our hallways.
I was as guilty of this as anyone.
Sadly, it took me leaving the classroom to really appreciate this. Being able to give and receive negative feedback – and most importantly, realizing its precious value – is an important skill we should all take time to master. And as both authors point out, this feedback has to flow from all directions. Reed Hastings hired McCord after that interview because he appreciated her ability to push back. Being able to share this kind of feedback, to people at all different levels of a company hierarchy is identified by both authors as a key to a successful company culture.
Once again, I rarely saw or practiced this myself when I taught.
What I did see, sadly, where some teachers that no longer liked their jobs. No one likes to go to a job that they do not like, and both books chronicle how important it is to be radically honest about this also – as well as how helping unfulfilled people find other jobs, benefits both the stagnating employee and the company as a whole. As strange as it sounds, getting fired can often be the best thing that happens to someone, and both books give plenty of evidence of how and why that is. At companies like Google and Netflix, changes in the market and technology force considerable and routine change to the company. How is keeping someone in a job that they do not like and they do not feel passionate about really helping the company evolve?
Quotes Worth Remembering:
This quote comes from the chapter of Powerful where McCord says that a manager should always be thinking about the company they want to become, not the company that they are now. Build the company now with the vision in mind of what you want to be then. If you are a new principal or superintendent that wants to bring bold change to a school, are you building a culture now, both through hiring and with how you model practices like giving and receiving feedback, to achieve the results you want then? That’s a great question.
“When you do that thing with your hand, I feel like you’re ignoring what I’m telling you. I can see I am going to have to be really, really direct to get through to you. You are one of the smartest people I know, but saying ‘um’ so much makes you sound stupid.”
Sheryl Sandburg to Kim Scott in chapter two of Radical Candor
Scott had just given a presentation to Google’s CEO and founders on the performance of AdSense. The presentation went very well, which led to Scott’s indifferent response to Sandburg’s feedback about her verbal crutch and subsequently led to the quote from Sandburg above. When sharing this story, Scott mentions that this feedback was helpful on two fronts: it quickly led to her solving the “um” problem in her speech, and it also inspired her to give better guidance to her team. It is a great example of how leadership can have an impact far beyond what is initially perceived, even when the feedback may initially make us uncomfortable. School leaders would do well to think of how their interactions with teachers can positively influence interactions between teachers and both students and parents alike.
Both books balance philosophy and practicality well, and the examples from each author’s wide breadth of experience humanize each book in an important way. Obviously, the books have relevance for small start-ups and large businesses, but as I’ve touched on in this review, there is much that teachers and school leaders stand to gain from these books too.