SAN FRANCISCO — Almost everyone who has held a job can recall a bad boss story. Bad management, whether stemming from incompetence, complacency or lack of vision, not only impacts employee morale and culture, but also affects a company’s growth and finances.

But a cure exists, because people can change. With the right approach and guidance, poor leadership can improve, and adequate leadership can do better to inspire and transform a team, according to Kim Malone Scott, an author with impressive credentials as an advisor at Dropbox, Kurbo, Qualtrics, Rolltape, Shyp, Twitter and several Silicon Valley start-ups.

She was also member of the faculty at Apple University and, before that, led AdSense, YouTube, and DoubleClick Online Sales and Operations at Google.

In addition, she was co-founder and CEO of Juice Software, a collaboration start-up, and led business development at two other start-ups, Delta Three and Capital Thinking. 

Earlier in her career, she worked as a senior policy advisor at the FCC, managed a pediatric clinic in Kosovo, started a diamond cutting factory in Moscow and was an analyst on the Soviet Companies Fund.

Suffice to say, she knows a lot about being a boss.

Speak Your Mind

Scott has shared her professional journey on Lean In, a site related to the 2013 book of the same name by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, and Nell Scovell, a TV and magazine writer. And in a world drowning in hyperbole and buzzwords, Scott stands out for articulating clear, direct and brutally honest advice for anyone in the workforce:

"Never be afraid to call BS, especially when it’s sexist BS," she stressed.

It apparently works: Scott has earned a reputation for her ability to generate profit while keeping her teams happy. The secret, if it's fair to call it that, starts with building relationships with each employee.

“We spend more time working than anything else,” she told CMSWire. “I wanted to love my work, and I wanted to love the people I worked with. So I wanted to create an environment where that was possible.”

3 Ways to Be a Better Boss

Scott’s fourth book, “Radical Candor,” is due out early next year. In it, she discusses three ways to be a better boss:

  1. Say what you think
  2. Understanding that telling people what to do does not work
  3. Give a damn

The book shares a lot of what not to do, too, often through the lens of Scott's own mistakes. She recalls a time when she failed to tell an employee he was “going off the rails.” She later found out it was because he smoked weed in the bathroom.

“We wanted to be supportive. We wanted to be nice … I failed to do my job well, and because of it, I’m firing [him]. All I could really do in that moment was make a really solemn promise to myself that I would never make that mistake again and that I would figure out how to teach other people who worked for me never to make it again.”

“I was trying to be nice, and it wound up really cruel.”

Scott discovered there was a big appetite for leadership advice when her talk at First Round Capital went viral. In February, she founded Candor, Inc. to continue spreading her knowledge and developing self-awareness and guidance tools.

“The whole time I had been writing the book, I had been thinking, ‘You know, it would be a lot easier for people to take this piece of advice or that piece of advice if I developed this software tool or that software tool.’”

Bad Bosses Aren't (Always) Bad People

Bad managers are not necessarily bad people, she said. Most tend to be unaware of their poor management, and sometimes it’s because people don’t know how to speak their minds.

“It’s usually good people who struggle with the responsibility. From the time we are taught to speak, we are told, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.’”

Kim Scott Radical Candor chart

Because she has trained teams in 20 countries, she found that thinking extends across a lot of cultures.

Between the childhood programming and the desire to be liked, being candid can be hard, she explained. So she came up with the “Radical Candor 2x2” as a reminder to balance honesty and empathy.

Scott describes obnoxious aggression as a situation where you challenge someone but don’t care about him or her, whereas ruinous empathy is when you care but don’t challenge someone.

Manipulative insincerity means you neither care nor challenge the person.

Remember that being a boss means having a relationship with those you work with, and that professionalism is based on human decency.

“Just show up as a human being,” Scott said.

She said she once felt silly telling that to a new Google employee, but what she means is “bring your whole self to work.”

“It's not only okay, but part of your job is to care about people personally. You don’t have to love the person, but you do have to show basic human decency. Somehow, along the way, people forget that.”

(Scott will lead an interactive session on “How to be a Kickass Boss” at BetterWorks Goal Summit on April 14 in San Francisco.)