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My Biggest Lesson: Vicky Janaway
Advertising Agency
London, UK
Client services director at The Gate on radical candour

"When you say ‘um’, every third word it makes you sound stupid and insecure.” The advice Sheryl Sandberg gave Google Exec Kim Scott has stuck with me ever since Scott first recounted it in her 2017 book ‘Radical Candour’. 

Not just because of the advice itself – or the fact that Scott, now such an impassioned speaker – should have needed it. But how Scott responded to Sandberg’s counsel. 

Were her feelings hurt? No, she was empowered. Indeed not only did she set out to make the change, she was shocked no-one had told her before.  

Scott speaks about how being challenged directly was the kindest thing Sandberg could have done for her career. A direct-ness that sits at odds with our overly polite English sensibilities. Sensibilities that, when I first devoured the book in 2017, I held dear, subconsciously living up to the ingrained notion “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.”

‘Radical candour’ turns ‘being nice’ on its head. It’s more than “just telling people straight”. Best summarised as a moral obligation, it isn’t being brutally honest. Nor is it an excuse for obnoxious or aggressive behaviour. Radical candour is the acceptance that it is OK to challenge others and be challenged in return. 

In a leadership context this means, “Bosses need to care personally (including bringing their whole self to work) and challenge directly”. I don’t know about you, but, in our industry, this hasn’t always been in line with the leadership styles I’ve encountered. Certainly for a large chunk of my career, those at the top were the definition of ‘red’ leadership style: “strong-willed, direct, focused only on results and will do anything to get there.” 

I’ll admit it was a style I tried to emulate to get ahead. But it was also at odds with another popular concept – to be truly authentic. I struggled to marry up this ‘red’ leadership and definition of success with the need to be my authentic self. 

This is where radical candour comes in. 

The idea that calling something out directly can be seen as supportive, and that openness and honesty allow for personal growth, really rings true. It moves leadership on from what Brené Brown describes as ‘power-over’ leadership, where power is finite and hoarded, to the more inclusive ‘power-with’ leadership, where power is infinite and expands when shared.

What’s more, the concept of radical candour extends beyond our teams and leadership.  This idea of bringing together “caring personally and challenging directly” plays directly into our relationships with clients. 

At The Gate, when we meet people who want to work with us, we use this thinking to set out how we want to work with them. We’re a senior hands-on team, who know that only with aligned agendas from the start, a shared appetite and ambition, can we be true client partners. 

This too, is why we are changing our perspective on account management. We’re focused on helping transform our client’s businesses, which is more than just managing or servicing accounts. 

We define ourselves as helping clients “walk through walls”. Our clients choose to partner with us because they want our bold, brave and effective ideas, not ‘yes-people’. Just as radical candour can be applied to our own relationships, we apply it to our client relationships too. We hold ourselves accountable to our moral obligation to challenge directly, while caring personally. 

And when you think that, according to recent research from Harvard Business School, 65% of businesses fail due to relationship breakdowns between partners, it’s more essential than ever that when we work together we do so with shared goals in mind. 

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