Let’s Get Radical! Leading with Candor

Dr. Catherine Burns Chief Academic OfficerDr. Catherine Burns
Chief Academic Officer


I have a question for leaders in education. What happens when we avoid difficult conversations or, worse, have the conversation, but do it poorly?

Have you ever experienced a conversation like this?

Leader: (at the end of a coaching meeting) Great, so I’ll be by your room tomorrow to see your “Do Now.”  Oh and one more thing – were you late to duty today?

Teacher: Oh, yeah, I was a little late, but I don’t think it was too big of a deal.

Leader: Is there a reason you were late?

Teacher: You know how it is, trying to get the kids out the door is never easy in the morning. Today they didn’t want to get their snow pants on, and then I had to clean off the snow, and then I got one of them in the car and the other one went off in the other direction and started eating the snow. It was quite the morning! 

Leader: I see. Well, try to be there on time, so the students are welcomed and supervised when they walk in the door.

Teacher: Sure, hopefully, tomorrow will be a better morning and I’ll try to be there.  


Sound familiar? We both know the teacher in this scenario won’t make a lasting change to their behavior as a result of this conversation. So, I have to ask: Why does radical candor matter and what are the dangers of lacking radical candor on your team?

As Peter Bromberg said, “when we avoid difficult conversations we trade short term discomfort for long term dysfunction.”

Throw away the conversations you didn’t have and the ones you had, but had badly. We’re putting those behind us and taking a new approach: we’re going to have the courage to have accountability conversations in three steps. You may be uncomfortable initiating them, but remember what you’re giving up if you don’t have the conversation.


Step One: Create the conditions for candor

¨   First, it’s important to establish the necessary conditions for productive accountability conversations. Here are some of the conditions I’ve found to be key:Clear (over)communication of organizational mission starting with the interview and continuing through all facets of the employee experience.

¨  Clear, outcome based performance expectations of teachers.

¨  Regular communication and feedback between leadership and teaching staff (formal and informal).

¨  Established communication norms.

¨  Take (and keep) literal observation notes.

¨  Work with your board or ED and make sure you have a clearly defined termination process.


Step Two: Understand the quadrants of candor and the characteristics of radical candor.

The next step is to understand candor. The expert on this is Kim Scott who created the radical candor framework. Watch her TEdTalk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yODalLQ2lM

If you don’t’ have time, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: Candor can be broken into quadrants:

1) Obnoxious Aggression

2) Manipulative Insincerity

3) Ruinous Empathy

4) Radical Candor

The goal is radical candor in your accountability conversations. Radical candor means you challenge team members directly, but care personally about them. As Kim says, “radical Candor is rare because criticizing employees can feel brutal, and praising them can feel patronizing.” But praise and criticism are key elements in a high performing team and are encouraged and fostered. “To give praise and criticism effectively, you have to care personallyYou have to give a damn about the person you’re talking to. It’s your job to care.”

To better understand radical candor, let’s look at what happens when you fail to care personally and challenge directly.

Obnoxious Aggression is what happens when you challenge your team member, but don’t care about them personally.

Ruinous Empathy is what happens when you care about your team member, but don’t challenge them — and 80% of management mistakes happen as a result of Ruinous Empathy, in my experience.

Manipulative Insincerity is what happens when you neither care nor challenge your team member.

Which quadrant resonates with how you tend to make decisions? Ruinous Empathy? Obnoxious Aggression? Ugh.

The good news is, you can improve your ability to lead with radical candor, which brings me to Step 3:


Step 3: Lead with Radical Candor

As you lead your high performing team, continue working to build trust and rapport with the entire staff, building authentic personal care for each of them.  This will allow you to challenge them directly.

  1. Remember to be HIPP with ALL feedback. Humble. In person. Private if a criticism, Public if a praise.
  2. Identify the “facts” about the situation. Caution: Be careful not to infer intentions, place blame, or make assumptions. Root your conversation in the “data”.
  3. Map the conversation (see the sidebar)
  4. Have the “Just the Facts, Pause” conversation
  5. Follow up on action steps

Here’s a sample of a model radically candid conversation:

Teacher:  (walks into leader’s office) You wanted to see me??

Leader: Hi Kate, yes, thank you for coming in, go ahead and have a seat.  I wanted to talk to you about your arrival time this morning.  I noticed you arrived at 7:45, instead of the 7:30. 

Teacher: Oh yes, you know how it is, trying to get the kids out the door is never easy in the morning.  Today they didn’t want to get their snow pants on, and then I had to clean off the snow, and then I got one of them in the car and the other one went off in the other direction and started eating the snow.  It was quite the morning! 

Leader: I understand, but when you’re not here on time, students are unsupervised and it puts a burden on the rest of your team to try and cover your duty.  Moving forward, you’ll need to be on duty promptly at 7:30 and if you have an off morning, I need you to call me so we can arrange proper coverage. 

Teacher: I understand. I’ll start our morning routine a little earlier, so I can be here on time.  If something comes up, I’ll call and let you know. 

Leader: Great, thanks.


Compare the outcomes of the two scripts. In our second example, the teacher has been challenged to rise to the occasion, with a clear action step for the leader to follow up on. High performing teams have the type of candor modeled in scenario #2! Every time. I encourage you to script and practice conversations and get feedback from a peer. (see scenarios in attachment)

Transformational leaders who are closing the achievement gap plan and hold accountability conversations to maintain high expectations for the adult culture utilizing the radical candor framework.

Radical candor. It’s not mean. It’s clear.

Recently, Catherine was appointed as a Commissioner for the Illinois State Charter School Commission (ISCSC). Established in 2011 by the Illinois Board of Education, the Commission is an independent body with statewide chartering jurisdiction and authority. Members of the Commission have extensive experience in education, particularly with school development and management–and that’s exactly why Catherine is perfect for this new responsibility. As a Commissioner, Catherine reviews charter applications and provides guidance to candidates to help increase the quality of applications and raise the level of professional practice in the Illinois charter sector. She is very excited about this opportunity because she can make an impact on students and families throughout Illinois and help influence professional practice in the charter sector, proving more quality options for students. Catherine has dedicated her life to helping others realize their full potential. Because of that, she is a thought leader on leadership development, executive coaching, and team management. She plays a critical role in developing leaders to hold the mindset and skill set to be transformational school leaders in the toughest environments in the nation. During her highly-successful 15-year career, Catherine has worked with over 50 leaders across the country from high-needs cities such as Chicago, New York, Newark, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Jose. It is through this work that she and these leaders have founded and turned around schools to provide opportunities for the highest-needs students in this country, dramatically changing the trajectory of their lives. Catherine lives in Chicago with her son and enjoys every minute of living in such a diverse and lively city.