March 25, 2024

The Key to CMO Candor: Care Personally and Challenge Directly

by Laura Parkyn

Author Kim Scott joined the CMO Huddles Book Club to share insights for CMOs from Radical Candor, her book on how to be a kick-a** boss without losing your humanity.

Radical Candor, the philosophy Scott details in her book, boils down to caring personally while challenging directly. It’s about building relationships based on trust and mutual understanding, not just delivering harsh criticism without regard for the other person’s feelings or perspective.

When you challenge without caring, that’s obnoxious aggression that shuts people down. Care without challenge leads to ruinous empathy, where you avoid telling people vital information to spare feelings. The sweet spot is Radical Candor.

So how can CMOs—or any leader—master this art of Radical Candor? Cue our list of 7 habits to adopt to become a radically candid leader, sourced from Scott’s profound learnings.

  1. Set the Vision for Candor

It’s hard to create habits around Radical Candor without first setting goals. For example, “Be more candid” is hardly as motivating as “Provide weekly opportunities for giving and receiving direct feedback.”

As CMOs, this means mastering the art of caring personally and challenging directly across the organization—fostering a culture where constructive criticism and truth-telling are seen as caring acts that strengthen teams, progress, and results.

  1. Don’t Just Give Feedback—Solicit Feedback Every Week

A key tenet of Radical Candor is to start by asking “What could I do or stop doing to make it easier to work with me?” This opens the door for suggestions while signaling you genuinely want input. Acting on the feedback makes your listening tangible.

Make it a habit to solicit feedback from a few team members every week. Schedule 10-minute slots to meet 1:1 and ask your questions. Remove distractions and focus completely on understanding their perspective.

  1. Growth Over Gotchas

When giving critical feedback, frame it through a lens of wanting to see the person grow versus catching them making a mistake. Make it about moving forward, not about looking backward.

Additionally, having these critical conversations in real-time will prevent problems from spiraling.

When offering critical feedback:

  • Be humble and acknowledge you may have limited information. Present critiques as your perspective, not absolute truth.
  • Frame it using context, observation, action, and result.
  • State explicitly your intention is to be helpful, not hurtful.
  • Focus on behaviors rather than personality to avoid personal attacks. Provide clear guidance for improvement.
  • Gauge reactions and adjust your language accordingly. If the feedback lands harshly, soften your approach with more empathy. If it’s brushed off, double down on the critique.
  1. Praise in Public

To balance constructive criticism, make it a habit to offer sincere public praise when earned.

Be specific, not generic: not just “Good job,” but “The way you brought data into that debate added credibility and built consensus.” You should spend just as much time making sure you’re getting the details of the praise you give right, as you do for criticism.

*Simple hint about praise: “If it’s something you would say to your dog, it’s not helpful praise.”

  1. Right > Happy

As Scott advises, caring personally does not mean coddling poor performers to keep them happy short term. Prioritize telling the right truth over keeping everyone smiling all the time. Avoiding “ruinous empathy” hurts the underperformer by preventing growth.

  1. Disagree > Disconnect

When someone disagrees with your feedback, avoid brushing them off. Find some area, even small, where you can agree. Then explain your own view. Disagreements avoided lead to disconnections, whereas respectful debate strengthens bonds.

  1. Rockstars vs. Superstars

Rockstars deliver consistent, high-level work but may not aspire to leadership roles. Superstars excel now and push aggressively for promotion. Understand team members’ career ambitions and growth potential so you can nurture both archetypes.

Having the courage to challenge directly with care, compassion, and respect can be the best way to drive excellence and maintain harmony at your company. While caring and challenging simultaneously can be difficult, it forges trusting, productive relationships that enable exceptional collaboration. The payoff for organizational culture and the bottom line make it well worth the emotional effort.

The CMO Huddles Book Club, brings top business book authors and thinkers to share their key insights through the CMO lens. If you’re a B2B marketing executive and ​​interested in joining the conversation, please consider trying out their free 1-month Guest Pass.