In below you can find the transcription of the interview recording:
Sohrab: Welcome everyone to our next episode of Agile Insights Conversation. Today I have the pleasure to have two amazing women joining me. One is Kim Scott, the author of “Radical Candor” and “Just Work”, her latest book. The other one is my coach Shani Ospina who will help me out on this interview today. So thank you both for joining here. Now whenever we run these conversations I always find it weird, I don't know why, that I introduce others, but I like to give some space and time others to give a short introduction about themselves. Kim, today as you are our interviewee, basically, we want to engage in a conversation with you, I would love to start with you. Can you share a bit about yourself with us before we get the conversation started?
Kim: Sure. So my whole business career was one giant plan to subsidize my writing habit and it's finally working. So mostly I'm a writer these days, but I started two companies “Just Work” and “Radical Candor” that help teams and leaders put the ideas in those books into practice. I co-founded “Radical Candor” with Jason Rosoff and I co-founded “Just Work” with Trier Bryant and he was born in Trier, Germany. I don't know if you've been there, but not too far from Cologne.
Sohrab: Yes, many times.
Kim: Before that started, I worked at Google and I worked at Apple and before that I did three start-ups all of which failed. So Google and Apple worked out better for me, and in that period of time the thing that I really loved more than anything else was building great teams. So, I also became, like Shani, CEO coach and that's me in a nutshell.
Sohrab: That's you in a nutshell. Thank you, Kim. Shani, a few words about you because most of our audience doesn't know you. I frequently talk about you, but some of them or many of them haven't met you yet.
Shani: So, I'm an executive coach. I've been an executive coach for fifteen years. I work primarily with C-level executives. I would say increasingly in the sort of SME space, start-up space, although I've done a lot of corporate work as well. I originally started my career in strategy consulting, I did a little stint in finance, and here I am for the last fifteen years doing what I absolutely love. Sohrab, of course you're one of the people who has either benefited or been a victim of my work.
Sohrab: Both. No, I wouldn't be working with you for two plus years if it hadn't benefited me so far. So thank you both for this quick introduction. Now, Kim I got to know you through the first book, I think, that you wrote, being “Radical Candor”. Shani and I have been using a lot of the tools that you put in there in the work that we do together. Then I read your second book. And I must say - I mean this conversation is not going to be a summary of the book, we don't want to spoil anything for people that are interested, we actually want to spark more interest - but I started reading that book and you talk about a time in your life when you think you began your career and a few of the challenges, let's put it mildly, that that you went through. I was reading that and I was thinking about my own upcoming like growing up being an immigrant kid always feeling being at a disadvantage. Then reading what you wrote I was like, “Oh man, I've never gone through what she has gone through just because I'm a man.” Suddenly I felt so privileged on the one hand and on the other hand I was like, “Kim is pointing out that she is privileged as well, so what must other people go through that don't have my privilege of being a man, or don't have Kim's privilege of growing up in the US and being white color?” So, can you share with us a bit about the things that happened early on in your career and that drove you do the work that you've been doing, become the person that you are. Share all of these insights and the wisdom that you have now with all of us out there.
Kim: Sure, absolutely. And I think you raised such an important point. I co-founded “Just Work” the company with Trier Bryant and Trier is a black woman and English is her third language. So, I remember talking to her, you know, about my own privilege and she said, “Look, you know, this is not a contest over who's. We've all gone through stuff and the point is when we come together in solidarity then we can solve these problems.”
So, anyway, here are some of the things that happened in my very first job out of college. I started working at a financial management company and I learned that I was getting paid dramatically less, dramatically dramatically less than the market. I went to my boss and I talked to him about it and he said, “Well, you have to talk to the CEO.” He didn't think I would talk to the CEO, but I did. I went in and I talked to him and immediately he got angry with me and started yelling at me, “If I paid you that much then you'd get paid more than my daughter.” And his daughter was a grade school teacher and grade school teachers are dramatically underpaid and they should be paid more, but the solution to that is not to pay women in finance less than men in finance. The solution to that is to pay teachers more. And so, but at the time, you know, I can sit here and say that very logically, but at the time I felt gaslit, I felt like, “Oh my gosh, he's yelling at me. He's actually really angry, maybe I did something wrong.” It was eating me up, it was one of those things that would wake me up at four in the morning and so I talked to other people about it. In fact, I went to talk to his chief of staff about it and the chief of staff said, “Well, why don't we have dinner together?” And I thought that was a little weird, he's like, “I'm too busy to talk about it right now, but we'll have dinner together.” Then we were working in Moscow and he couldn't get a reservation, so he said, “I'll just bring dinner to your apartment,” which also was a little weird. But anyway, he wound up grabbing my breast at one point in the dinner and I had to run out of my own apartment. It was this sort of weird moment where I felt like I am safer alone on the streets of Moscow than I am in my own apartment and that was a strange realization. During me-too I remember reading some stories about women who are attacked in their own homes and as I was reading these stories I was like, “Just leave! Just leave! Just run away,” you know. But where that insight came from I don't know. It wasn't the only time that that happened to me. Actually, I was telling the story to a friend of mine, now I’m digressing a little bit, but I was telling this story to a friend of mine over dinner and my husband was sitting there and she also had a story where she had run out of her own house on into the streets in the middle of the night to get away from some guy. His jaw was on the table, he said, “Does every woman have a story about running away?” I said, “Unfortunately, a lot of us do.” He couldn't believe it. It was like your experience reading the book. Anyway, so that happened and then I wound up talking about the situation to my boss's boss, not the CEO. But I went and he didn't solve the problem, but he got me a little bit of a raise, and I was very grateful to him. He was someone I had sort of come to think of as a mentor, as someone I could trust. At one point, we were on a business trip in Saint Petersburg, and my boss just kind of grabbed the newspaper away from me and he was like, “Directors read first,” and I was upset about it and so I just kind of walked away. I went to the elevator, I was going up to my room and my boss's boss followed after me and said, “Gosh, he was really awful to you there.” And we got in the elevator, the doors closed, and he kind of reached out his arms for a hug. I hugged him, mostly because I was sort of tearing up and I was ashamed and I didn't want him to see that I was crying. Then he started to frau me, to grind himself into me. When the door opened and I ran away, darted under his arm, and I remember just feeling so devastated and alone at that point. The one person I felt like I could trust in all of this turned out to be so untrustworthy. But it wasn't all bad. There was one other person I told who was also a partner at the firm and he finally called me and he said, “Look, you got to get out of there.” And he was the one who introduced me to the next company where I worked. So, and the value of him doing that was both psychologically crucial but also at a practical level crucial because somehow when you're in these situations, at least when I was in that situation, I felt stuck, I felt trapped, I felt like I couldn't leave, I wasn't allowed. I don't know why I felt like I wasn't allowed to quit but I did. I was so determined, you know, that I was going to succeed at this company. He was the one who said, “There are other jobs, Kim.” I needed to hear that and he didn't just say there are other jobs, he made an introduction for me. But also even before he had done that, just his willingness to acknowledge, “This is wrong, this is not right and I'm sorry,” dispelled a lot of the gaslighting. It made me feel less alone.
So part of the reason why I wrote “Just Work” is in gratitude to the upstanders, the many upstanders in my career, and also to help other people realize how important it is. It may seem inadequate to just say, “Gosh, I saw that happened, I noticed that happened, and it's wrong,” but that really can be extending a lifeline to someone.
Shani: So how do you go from all of these things that happened to you - and I can identify with a lot of them, you know, like all women, and I've had my share of those - but how do you go from there to actually saying, “You know what, I really need to help other people deal with this,” you know, “and I need to help myself deal with this”?
Kim: Yeah, you know it's kind of hard for the author of a book called “Radical Candor” to admit, but I was in denial about a lot of this stuff. I think I dealt with it too often by pretending like it wasn't happening and just marching forward and I think I had a moment, shortly after “Radical Candor” came out, when I was giving a “Radical Candor” talk at a tech company in San Francisco and the CEO of that company was someone I like and respect enormously. So I'd worked with her for the better part of a decade and one of too few black women CEOs in tech and she pulled me aside afterward and she said, “Kim, I'm excited about ‘Radical Candor’, I'm excited to roll it out. I think it's going to help me build the kind of culture I want, but,” she said, “I got to tell you, it's much harder for me to roll it out than it is for you.” And she explained to me that as soon as she would offer anyone even the most gentle, compassionate criticism, she would get slimed with the angry black woman stereotype, and I knew this was true and as soon as she said it to me it sort of helped me realize four things at the same time. The first was that I had not been the kind of upstander that I wanted to be, I had not been the kind of colleague that I imagined myself to be. I had failed even to notice the extent to which she had to show up unfailingly cheerful and pleasant at every single meeting we had ever been in together. I hadn't even considered the toll that must take on her, the mental tax that must cost her. So that was number one.
The second thing I realized in that moment was that I had been in denial about the kinds of things that were happening to me and that if I was going to address them I needed to come out of denial, I needed to be able to notice reality.
The third thing I realized was that, you know, I think part of the reason I have been in denial is I never wanted to think of myself as a victim. We have such a strange response to being a victim in our society. But even less than wanting to think of myself as a victim, I want to think of myself as a perpetrator. And, yet, that was the third realization, that I had sometimes said or done things that were biased, that were unfair to others and I have been even deeper in denial about those moments.
Then the fourth thing I realized was that as a leader, even though I often thought I was creating these wonderful, bullshit free zones, you know, these great work environments, I had failed to address biased prejudice and bullying adequately to create really great work environments.
I think, that was the moment when I realized I’ve gotta sit down and write this book, “Just Work”, and to help others no matter what their role is because sometimes we're going to play all of those roles. Sometimes we're the victims, sometimes we're the perpetrator. And it was, it's tricky, by the way, writing a book for both sides but it seemed important to do that. Sometimes we observe it and we want to be the upstanders but we're the silent bystander, and sometimes we're the leader. I think a lot of leaders make mistakes and I think in some ways it was safer for me to admit the mistakes I had made as a leader than it would be if I were a man, for example. So, I felt like I was in in a decent position to write this book
Sohrab: So, you mentioned San Francisco and the tech up there. I remember almost ten years ago I got the chance to tour the dropbox offices. And dropbox’s slogan back then, I don't know if it's still the case, was “It just works”. So, I was touring their office and they had this one booth where people could go in and jam and above that they had this like “It just works” and the person who gave me the tour said, “Sometimes we turn off the ‘it’ and the ‘s’ at the end so it's ‘just work’ and that helps people to to focus right to get done.” And based on that experience, when I saw your book title - thinking also about “Radical Candor” which to me mostly was about, so, how can we get work done, right - the the first interpretation I had of the title was, “So this is another book that helps us to just work, like get work done.” And although it's on the title, right? “Get shit done”, that was what I read, “Fast and fair”, I completely skipped that until I was like in chapter two I think or something where I realized, no, that's just one aspect of it. The other aspect is really more about the fairness piece, about creating this environment where people feel included, where you create psychological safety. Another one of these big big terms that comes up. Actually, if you do those things then you get to that “just work” that I was initially interpreting. Now, you going through your journey as an executive initially, as a coach now, as an author - did you also start primarily with this focus on how can we get work done so that our organization becomes more productive? And then later on working with the teams, you mentioned your passion for that, realized that, “Hey, that's the wrong focus. I need to get other things right in order to get there. But that's an outcome that I will get once I get those other things right.” Did you go through a similar process that I did?
Kim: The reason why I like to write and the reason why I like to be a manager boils down to the same thing. I'm really curious about what are the conditions that are required for each of us to become our best selves, you know, and to live life both joyfully and productively. And to me if I don't feel productive I'm not gonna feel joy. Work and life are very much integrated and they're not at war with each other.
As we were chatting before this started, I said I started my career in Moscow. That was where I first started working in Russia. I remember one time I took a train ride from Moscow to Paris and I just was sitting staring out the window and it was like a lesson in economics and in systemic injustice, frankly. Just looking out the window. And it was still the Soviet Union at this point, this was 1990. You got on the train and it was great. There was no food, I remember I had to buy a bag of tangerines that had come from Cuba. There was this joke that these tangerines were traded for missiles and they were the most expensive tangerines. And the whole economy was so… you couldn't buy toilet paper in Moscow at that point. You'd walk into the grocery store there was no food and there was certainly no dining car on the train, you know. So you got on this train and then you looked out the window and as you pulled out of Moscow things are just a mess, things are a hot mess, things are dilapidated. Then as you're going west things start to get a little more orderly and a little bit nicer and then, you know, you pull into Poland and things are way better and then you're in Germany. I'll never forget getting off the train car in Paris and there were all these, you know, sleek silver western european cars but I was still in the soviet train car which was like something out of a cartoon. It was green and filthy and there were flies came and I was like, “Oh my goodness! What one of these systems works way better than the other system?” So part of it is a systems thinking thing, and then also thinking about how unhappy I was when I was in Moscow at that time. I was at Moscow physical technical institute which is where the nuclear scientists were trained. I remember one guy like grabbing his head and rocking back and forth and saying, “My brain, my brain.” Like, “I'm expected to do this significant scientific work but I can't. I've been taught not to think. I've been taught, you know, to believe lies and it's interfering in my ability to do physics.” That moment was so intense for me. But luckily that guy is living in Atlanta, Georgia, now. He's not in Moscow and he's horrified by the war. So that got me thinking like, “How do we create environments?” And - obviously, you know, in the workplace things aren't usually as unjust as they were in the Soviet Union - but I did have the experience early on of working at companies where people were treated horribly. I remember one time I was working at a company that had to do layoffs and the CEO was afraid to do it himself. So he hired a paid asshole to come in and fire everybody in the worst possible way. I remember thinking these layoffs are necessary but the difference between doing it well and doing it poorly is the difference between the self respect that the people who got laid off have, and also the motivation that the people who stay have. Because it was done so badly. Everyone who wasn't fired sort of had survivor guilt and wasn't able to do their best work. So it was both unjust and unproductive this kind of asshole management.
I've been thinking a lot about this because of the war and sort of the contrast and Selenskyi’s leadership and Putin's brutality. And I think, too often, when it comes to our attitudes and behaviors about management we do have this sort of false belief, I call it the sort of totalitarian mindset that a boss has to be an authoritarian asshole and I just don't believe that's true. I don't think it's effective and I don't think it helps people do their best work and I don't think it helps create either a productive or a fair atmosphere. So that's a long-winded answer to your question.
Sohrab: No, thank you for that. Now, just to pick up on this and then Shani can ask the next question. I think one of the reasons we have this belief or many people have this belief that a true leader, a strong leader right, is this totalitarian asshole is that many people, looking at some of the more famous and successful leaders being Steve Jobs, being Elon Mosque, being Jeff Bezos, they only point out the weaknesses of these people and they rarely point out the genius, I think. I never got the chance to meet any of them in person but just looking at Elon, how many companies he is able to run in parallel and those people working there doing an amazing job. I don't believe that he could create an environment that is completely toxic. I might be wrong but I think we hear too often the bad sides of these people and everybody has weaknesses and strengths. And then some leaders believe, “Okay, in order to be like Elon I need to be like this kind of asshole.” Or whatever, it's just an observation that I've had with many leaders working with and I think pointing out the other things can help people, as you did right, to show better behavior and still be very effective and very determined.
Kim: Yeah, I mean look it's hard to argue with success ,I would say. I did work at Apple and I did have the opportunity to observe Steve Jobs' leadership and I think there was a lot of humanity there that doesn't get talked about. I mean, for example, it was very clear you would see Steve Jobs and Jony Ive having lunch in the cafeteria sitting at a table like everybody else. Clearly, these two people loved working together, they enjoyed each other, you know. There was when Steve Jobs was diagnosed with cancer Tim Cook offered to give him his liver, part of this liver, and Steve Jobs refused the sacrifice. There is no way to explain that kind of behavior other than love and these two people really loved working together and loved each other. That's the kind of stuff that doesn't get talked about very often. You know, I probably would not have enjoyed working directly for Steve Jobs because it would have been rough but other people liked it and the point is that he surrounded himself with people whom he had a real human relationship with. Scott Forstall who built the iOS team adored Steve, really, you know, viewed him as a mentor and it was clear that those two people really cared about each other and I think that very often at the center of a successful company are good relationships between a CEO and their direct reports and I don't think it gets talked about because it's very difficult. You can't operationalize that. It's going to be different, there's no one way to have a good relationship.
Sohrab: There's no framework for that.
Kim: Yeah, there is. I did build the framework for it but it's going to look very different. In fact, radical candor between Steve and Jony Ive looked very different from radical candor between Steve and Scott Forstall, looked very different than radical candor between Steve and other people who he worked with. So it's sort of universally human, it's about love and truth at the same time, care personally challenged directly, but it's also about, you know, it's relative, it's culturally relative and it's interpersonally relative.
Sohrab: Thank you, Kim.
Shani: It's fascinating to sort of hear about, you know, these leaders that people idolize or hate depending on where they stand and kind of to actually realize that it's always a bit more subtle than it's presented. However, bringing it back to kind of let's call it the common person, right, because most of the people that we are surrounded by are not going to be reporting into Steve Jobs or even one Steve Jobs directs reports, right. And many of them are also potentially earlier on in their career, and different levels of disadvantage. So, I was struck by the insights in your book and the fact that you constantly say, “Look, your options for how you can respond.” But I was also thinking, “God, it would take a lot of courage depending on my circumstances to go into some of these responses.” And they seem like exactly the right thing to do and now twenty years into my career I could see myself doing that but I don't think I would have been able to do it when I was four or even one or five or even ten years into my career. And so I'm wondering, you know, what would you advise people or what would you say to people and, well, how'd you get the courage?
Kim: Yeah, you know, look I was raised as a woman, as a girl in the South as a child and I was taught never to push back ever ever ever and never to criticize and always, you know, never say “No” and all the things you have to do and that made it hard for me as a leader. I think the thing that helped me more than anything else to realize that it was the right thing to do was to be very clear in my own mind about what happened when I didn't do it. 'Cause what I didn't want to lose was my desire to be kind, that was core to who I was. I had a mentor early on in my career who said, “Look, you may not love where you are at this moment in your career and, honestly, very few people love where they are in their first five years. It's like your first jobs are gonna suck, I'll just put it that way, unless you're exceptionally lucky. So you may not love where you are but you can use this as an opportunity to become, to respond to the situation you find yourself in in a way that helps you become the person you want to be.” So that was very helpful to me to realize, “Okay, you know, I am me now and I want to respond to the things that are happening to me in a way that helps me become the person I want to become.” So that was helpful. The other thing that really helped was thinking about: Okay, what are those moments when I didn't respond? One of those moments when I just was silent when I could have spoken up, or in retrospect I wish I had spoken it up but I didn't and what happened?
So, in “Radical Candor” I tell the story of this guy Bob and I liked Bob a lot. He was smart, he was charming, he was funny but he was doing terrible work and because I wanted to be nice to Bob I didn't say anything, you know, and then ten months later I wound up having to fire him. Not so nice after all. And so I write the whole story in great gory detail in the book. But remembering that, remembering Bob when I was tempted not to say the thing to someone really helped me to find the courage to say it.
The other very small thing I would do is before I would go into a conversation with someone I would write down what are the three things I wanna tell them about. I had a one-word summary. I put it on a post-it and put it in my pocket. Not because I was going to pull the post-it out in the meeting and look at it but because the fact that I knew it was in my pocket made me feel ashamed if I backed out of saying it. So that was helpful. So first of all, telling yourself stories helps. Second of all, put some kind of prop that reminds you not to back off what you want to say.
I think also the thing that really helped me was to think about silence. It seems safer instinctively, but if you do an ROI calculation, and we automatically calculate the risks of speaking up, if you think about what are the risks of remaining silent over the long term then you begin to realize that silence can actually risk the relationship and it can create a risk for yourself. Because if you always default to silence, I say this in “Just Work”, if you always default to silence you lose your sense of agency and that is the one thing none of us can afford to lose. So you want to make sure that you're remembering that. As Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you whether you're speaking about injustice or about spinach in the teeth.” There's real value in speaking up.
The other thing I will say for folks who are early in their career who maybe have to speak truth to power - there's a whole section about being radically candid with your boss - but especially at this moment in time where there's a great resignation it's so hard to hire people. Your boss is just as afraid to give you feedback as you are to give your feedback. So, if you can work on soliciting feedback and also giving it you’re gonna have a better, not only are you gonna have more success in your career, you're gonna have a better relationship with your boss and that matters. I think if there's one thing that is at the core of both, “Radical Candor” and “Just Work”, it's the relationships that we form at work, whether it's with our boss or our peers or our employees. You want to get on a level playing field, no matter what your position is. There are very few things that are more damaging to a relationship than a power imbalance and so if you have the power you want to lay it down and if you don't have the power you want to step it up so that you get yourselves on a level playing field. The people I know throughout my career who've wound up being the most successful were the people who were willing, actually, to speak truth to power. They wound up having better relationships with their boss than people who are afraid. But it's very hard to like someone who's afraid of you, so try not to take formal authority so seriously. If you're a CEO you want to structure things so that you strip managers of their traditional sources of power. So they don't have unilateral decision making over who gets hired, who gets fired, who gets promoted, who gets a bonus but you do that in, you know, as part of a process.
Sohrab: Yeah, so I like that last part that you just mentioned and it makes me wonder because I am in that CEO role, right, and despite my company not being that big, we are around ten people, there is an imbalance of power just naturally. And, yes, I agree everyone who has less power should try to step up. But what I always try to think about, and you mentioned agency right, I can't tell them you have to step up. What I can do is to create the environment that they feel safe to step up, right, and so, now, what would you recommend to other people that are in similar positions than I am, that are executives and organizations et cetera from a leader's perspective: What are the key messages to create a fair environment where people can just work, where you have just work?
Kim: Yeah, so if you don't design your management systems for justice you're gonna get systemic injustice. So you want to be very conscious and you want to think, you want to bring the sensibilities that you would bring to building a product, you want to bring those sensibilities to building your company.
So, for example, I was talking to an investor in Silicon Valley and he had just read “Just Work” and he said to me, “You know, your book made me think,” he said, “I'm often the chair of the board and so I've been thinking about all these management systems I can put in place to make sure the managers at these companies. But what if the problem is me?” He said, “Who do people go to then? I'm the chair of the board. Who do people go to then?” and he wound up hiring someone who would be an employee ombuds person and that was someone that the people of the company really felt they could trust and that is really - I was so grateful to him for doing that. Especially if you're the leader of a company it starts with looking yourself in the mirror and I will tell you a story about. At one point I started a software company and I started this company in part as a result of that unfair situation I described at the beginning of my conversation and also because I had another situation where I decided if I go work for a woman then I’ll get paid fairly and then I found out, once again, I was being paid on, you know, less even when the CEO was a woman. And so I decided if I'm the CEO then everything will be sweetness and light, right, then everything will be fair. And I think that's a natural human instinct: if I'm the undisputed leader then everything will be better. And it won't, unfortunately, just because I was the boss human nature didn't change - surprise surprise. I shouldn't have been surprised but I was.
So here's an example of what happened and then I'll get to what I could have done differently. So, there was a guy working for me and he bullied me like I was giving him feedback about a project that was going sideways and I said, as I always trying to do in such a situation, I said to him, “What can I do or stop doing that would help you get this project back on track?” And he leans in, he says, “The problem here is you are the most aggressive woman I ever met.” You know, I was the most aggressive woman he ever met, I wasn't even on the list of the top one hundred most aggressive men he ever met and furthermore, you know, it was his job, it was an aggressive industry and it was his job to deal with. So his problem was not my aggression, his problem was my gender and in my case that wasn't going to change.
So what I should have done, and what you should do as a boss if you're in a situation and you notice bullying, I should have created consequences, either conversational consequences, you know: “You cannot talk to me or any other woman that way.” I should also have created some sort of compensation consequences: “You're not going to get a good rating if you bully.” And career consequences, so you don't want to promote your bullies if you're the boss. There's a moment in the history of every start-up I've ever seen where the bullies begin to win and that is the moment when the culture begins to lose. Atlassian has a really strict rule that, you know, “We don't promote our brilliant jerks.” You cannot get promoted if you're a jerk to other people and, you know, sometimes you have to fire your brilliant jerks and that's hard, you know, because they're brilliant. In the immortal words of Steve Jobs, “It’s better to have a hole than an asshole.”
But I didn't do any of that, I didn't do any of that because I was responding more from the position of the person harmed than the position of the leader and so I just kind of defaulted the silence which is, too often, what happens when somebody bullies us. The problem with that was that if he was going to talk to me that way, how is he gonna talk to other people, other women, the women who worked for him and, unfortunately, I had an opportunity to find out. So, fast forward a few weeks, we're at a company all hands and there's a young woman who works for him coming over to throw away her pizza crust in her paper plate and he's sitting on top of a table underneath which there's the garbage can. And she says, “I need to…”, and then he spreads his legs and he says, “Get in between my legs.” And once again I kind of rolled my eyes, I responded as though I were the person harmed and not the CEO, not the leader and I kind of rolled my eyes, I pulled the garbage can out but I did not create any consequences. Not only did I not create any consequences, I had gone to great lengths as the leader of that company to make sure that I was in control. So, if she couldn't come to me, there was no one for her to go to to complain and she felt that it was an unsafe working environment and she felt that, you know, I had created a hostile work environment and there was no one for her to ask. I had, not unlike this investor I was just talking to about, I had not created an employee ombuds person there. It was a start-up. There was no HR, there was nowhere for her to go. But even if there had been HR it wouldn't have helped because HR would have reported to me, right, and so you want to make sure when you're setting up your company that you're creating checks and balances. This is an old idea and it is as important at companies as it is in governments, so that you are not the undisputed leader, so that there's always someone who people trust, who they can go to. You want to create these trusted reporting mechanisms. You want to figure out how to build a culture that cherishes the whistleblower. So that you find out what's going wrong, what you yourself are doing wrong. You don't want to silence feedback. You want to give the whistleblower a bullhorn.
Shani: It’s fascinating, I love the way you talk about setting up your culture from the start so that it does that. There are many companies that already have a culture that needs changing and, you know, when as a leader you realize that you need to change the culture, either because you inherited it or you created it yourself but it's not working, where would you start? How do you start to create this change and signal to people, “We're changing!”?
Kim: So, I think that there are a number of things that you can do. If you feel like you're in a culture where people are physically unsafe you want to start there, you don't want to start with unconscious bias training, you know. In “Just Work” I diagnose the different problems that you could have but there are kind of six things that I think are important for leaders to do to create the conditions for “just work”. The first is to create sort of bias disruptors. So, there's six different problems, six different solutions. I mean there's an infinite number of problems and an infinite number of solutions but let's boil it down to six.
So bias, prejudice and bullying I think are the root causes and very often we conflate these three things as though they're one and they're different. Bias is not meaning it, it's unconscious, kind of a brain hiccup. Whereas prejudice is meaning it, it's a consciously held prejudiced belief. Bullying is just being mean. Lots more to say about all those topics but let's now match some solutions to the problems.
So, for bias I recommend bias disruptors. So, Trier and I wave a purple flag, that's our bias disruptor. It's very simple, very lightweight. But there's three parts to a bias disruptor. The first is you want a shared vocabulary, you want to sit down with your team and figure out, you know, maybe they think the purple flag is stupid and they'd rather say, “Bias alert!” One team we work with throws off a peace sign, another team says, “I don't think you meant that the way it sounded”, another team says, “Ouch!” Whatever, the best words to use are the words your team will actually use. So talk to them, say, “What are we going to do when we want to interrupt bias?” Because bias is a pattern and if you don't interrupt it it's going to get reinforced. So you've got to publicly interrupt it. The second part of bias disruptors that you can do is you can talk to your team about how to respond as the person who caused harm. So what do you say if it's you whose bias is pointed out because this is a hard moment for people and you want to help people learn how to respond well. Because, I don't know about you, but when my biases are pointed out to me I feel deeply ashamed and usually when I feel ashamed I don't respond well. I'm physically in a fight or flight mode. I can tell you, I feel tingling in the back of my knees as though I have a child who's walked close to the edge of a precipice. I mean it's a physical fear of sensation. And so you want to teach people to respond when their bias has been pointed out to them, you know, to say something like, “Thank you for pointing it out. I get it and I'll try not to do it again.” Or they need to say, “Thank you for pointing it out but I don't know quite why what I said was problematic. Can we talk after the meeting?” And the second thing is really hard because sometimes when I’m in that situation I feel doubly ashamed. I'm ashamed because I've harmed someone and I’m ashamed ‘cause I'm ignorant, I don't even know what I did wrong. So, reminding people that this is normal. If we're going to learn about bias we're going to be surprised that we've done something wrong and we need to be open to it. Then the third part of bias disruptors is you want to make sure that you help people remember. If you get to the end of a meeting and no bias has been flagged then you gotta pause. Where was the bias? A shared commitment to interrupting it at least once in every meeting. So, in the next thirteen minutes we're going to interrupt bias at least once, can we commit to that? We're gonna do it here, okay, I wave it all myself. So there's that bias.
For prejudice you need to have kind of a code of conduct. Because bias disruptors kind of hold up a mirror for people and when they notice the spinach in their teeth they're naturally going to get it out but with prejudice that's not going to work. You’re going to hold up the mirror and the person's gonna say, “Yeah, you know that's what I think.” So you need for prejudice to be very clear about where the line is. One person can believe whatever they want, it's not your job as the manager to be the thought police, so they can believe whatever they want but they can't impose that belief on other people at the company and you want to make it clear where that line is. So, “You can believe whatever you want but you cannot refuse to hire someone because of their hair”, for example, which happens unfortunately all the time. So I think that it is really important to sort of take the time to write that code of conduct.
Then for bullying you want to create consequences, the sort of conversational compensation and career consequences. So that's what to do for biased prejudice and bullying.
But what happens when power enters the equation? When power enters the equation you get discrimination, harassment and physical violations.
For discrimination you really want to quantify your bias at every point in the employee life cycle. Who are you interviewing? Often bias creeps in just in resumes. So you can try stripping PII out of resumes, for example, personally identifiable information out of a resume. Who are you promoting? You want to cut the data by your different diversity metrics, by gender, by race, by whatever it is that you're seeking to get more representation on your team. Who are you promoting? Pay? What if you cut your pay data by gender or by race you're gonna see some - okay I'm gonna wave the purple flag - you're gonna notice, not see, you will notice this. You're going to notice some discrepancies, I can promise you. Not because you're intending to pay women less than men or or black people less than white people or latino/latina employees less than white employees but because you're going to reflect and reinforce market bias. So you want to make sure that you're measuring what matters, that you're quantifying your bias at every stage of the employee life cycle to prevent discrimination.
For harassment you really need these checks and balances that I was talking about before and the simple ones are to make sure that no manager, including yourself, has unilateral decision making over who gets hired, who gets fired, who gets promoted, who gets paid a bonus, ratings. So again, sort of go through your employee life cycle and make sure there's no unilateral authority.
And then you want to make sure to prevent physical violations, you want to make sure that you have a culture of consent which is not and you want to write it down, it's not that complicated. Like, “If you're going to touch someone you need to know that they want to be touched.” Even if it's just a handshake and actually handshake is a good way to explain it, ‘cause we're coming back to the office and some people never will shake hands again. But it's your job to know whether that other person wants to be touched, don't just stick your hand out but hesitate and if you don't know, don't touch and if they don't want to be touched, don't touch, you know. It's not that complicated and, yet, you know, it's not the way it works out.
So those are six things you can do. Bias disruptors, code of conduct for prejudice, consequences for bullying. You want to quantify your bias to prevent discrimination, you want checks and balances to prevent harassment and you want to make sure that you have a culture of consent.
Shani: It sounds like wrapping all of that means that you're actually discussing these things. That it's not like there's a rule walker or something.
Kim: Yeah yeah, don't do what Basecamp did which said, “We're not gonna talk about politics.” It's not a good idea. Or what I just recently saw: Amazon has a list of words that you're not allowed to use on the company internet and it is a remarkable list. I don't know if it's really true but if it is true somebody needs to have, there needs to be something at Amazon.
Sohrab: There need to be some consequences, some career confrontation and conversation consequences.
Kim: Yeah, you're not allowed, I mean, it includes like “bullying”. You can't say “bullying”, you can't say “teamwork”, you can't say… it's a remarkable list.
Sohrab: So, let me get into one of the things that you specifically mentioned, Kim and this is equal pay. Now, I was very fortunate. I studied medicine and I was supposed to work in a hospital in Germany. At least there are fixed salaries for every stage, so not an issue. I didn't go work in a hospital, I joined Bain & Company as a management consultant and there again they fixed salaries for every stage and a lot of things are very transparent. So getting into the workforce I not only thought that I was not getting equally paid. So I always knew I was getting equal pay but also I knew that all of my female coworkers, they were getting equal pay, everybody was getting equal pay. Then you read all of these studies about big corporations, small corporations where this is not happening and I don't know what the exact number is but something around 20-30 % is what women make on average less than men make. The last time, I think, I checked. Maybe it's even more than that, right?
Kim: Yeah, and women who aren't white get paid 40 % less.
Sohrab: 40 % less. So, and in the US this becomes even more important because you have a more diverse culture or demographics than we have in Europe, at least in Germany. Now, for me this topic of equal pay always seems to be the easiest to fix because it's very objective, right? As you mentioned, you just look at the data, you know which position people hold, you see immediately what they're making and it should be - I'm specifically saying it should be and I'm being maybe a bit sarcastic - it should be easy to bump up the salaries of the people that are getting less. What do you see as being some of the main factors that this is not happening? It's not that people are not aware of it. A lot of women but also men have been talking about this for many many years now, maybe even decades but it still hasn't happened. Why?
Kim: Yeah, I think part of it is denial. I think, especially, in the tech sector in the US, but in a lot. We so firmly believe, leaders so firmly believe that this is a meritocracy. The people we're promoting were promoted because they deserve to be promoted. And it's not, I mean that is the big lie about the tech sector, I think, globally. It's not a meritocracy. What happens is that for one thing these leaders who say, you know, “We’re metrics driven blah blah blah blah blah.” Then you say, “Okay, let's cut the data. Let's cut our pay data by gender.” Oh no, you know, all of a sudden they are metrics fleeing. So part of it is a refusal to measure what matters or to say it doesn't matter, to say it's so complicated. I mean these people who are like, you know, think they're gonna solve the problem of mortality think it's too complicated to pay men and women fairly. It's ridiculous. So part of it is management absurdity. Denial, you know, denial is not just a river in Egypt. So that's part of the problem.
Another part of the problem is that there's this faith that the market is fair. We know the market is not fair. So what happens at companies is they'll ask, and increasingly this is starting to be an illegal question. But we need to not sort this out in the legal system, we need to sort it out by doing what the hospital did. But I think the answer is to have different pay at different levels and for it to be transparent. Why should we negotiate our salaries? The salary should be what it is, you know, that's what I think. But anyway, that's not what happens. What happens is you're interviewing for a job and they'll ask you what you're currently being paid and then they'll match that and then they're reflecting and reinforcing the bias of the market and they're saying, “Well, it's the market. It's fair.” It's not fair. Let's get over this “the market is fair”. That's bullshit, it's not fair. There was another executive who read “Just Work” and he sent me a note and he said, “It used to be that when I would hire a woman I'd ask her what she was paid and I'd match that. Now that I've read your book, I ask her what her colleagues, who are men, are paid and I'll pay her that.” How hard was that? That was not that hard. So I think that part of it is being willing to be transparent.
The one thing I got right at that company I started is that I said, “Okay, here are the different job categories. There's engineers, there's marketing people, there’s sales people. Here are the different levels and here's what you're paid if you get that job and I'm not gonna negotiate it. It is what it is. Because A) I hate to negotiate, but B) I knew that the men who I hired would negotiate harder than women. Not because men are better negotiators than women but because women get punished when they negotiate. They're rational actors, that's why women don't negotiate on the way in.
Sohrab: Isn't that a prejudice?
Kim: Yes, I mean it's a bias I think. I mean it happened to me with a male boss and with a female boss. But I don't think people go in consciously saying, “It's okay for men to negotiate and it’s not okay for women.” I don't think most people consciously believe that. So it's not exactly a prejudice. But when a woman negotiates she's not a teamplayer or she's bossy or abrasive or whatever, those are all terms of bias. Whereas if a man negotiates really hard, oh he's tough, you know. So he gets away with it and she gets punished for it. That is why women don't negotiate. But then what happens is when people give advice to women who are going in, knowing consciously or unconsciously that this bias is out there, then they're going to get punished if they negotiate, then they get told they’re whims for not negotiating. They're not whims, they're rational actors, you know. So this is the way that this kind of bias turns into a pay gap in the marketplace. So it's really important. I think the best answer is to make it transparent, you know, here's the seller, here's the brackets and here's the salaries. If you're not going to do that, don't ask people what they were paid but figure out what the market is. Imagine if you had to go to the grocery store and you had to negotiate for every can of peaches you bought. Why should we negotiate our salaries? It should just be: It is what it is. Take the time to figure out a fair compensation system and pay people what's fair.
Sohrab: It's like going to a bazaar.
Sohrab: I mean you go to the bazaar and you negotiate for every piece of candy that you buy and if you're a good negotiator - like my mom is - and that's why I mentioned there can be very good female negotiators, they save a lot of money.
Shani: But it's a different context, right? Because in the bazaar you were expected to negotiate and this is what is interesting. There's no bias against females not negotiating, there's a bunch of other biases. But so it's, just again, it's a little bit out of context.
Shani: In our considered western and possibly non-western environments we have this challenge, right?
Shani: I actually wanted to take the conversation away to another topic that is very dear to my heart and it is a little bit out of balance from the “Just Work” book. But it's due to the fact that I have two young boys, nine and ten years old. So in early March or so they had an international women's day celebration at school and they came home and one night over dinner they were saying to me, “I don't get this. Why do we have a women’s day? Why not a men’s day?” And my jaw dropped and I was like, of course, I mean they don't know what women go through, yet, and I need to make sure that they are upstanders as they grow up. Not just to women but to everyone, right? Because my boys are privileged, they're white western European males. It doesn't get any better than that, for now at least. I know you have kids as well and I'd be really curious: What advice would you give to the parents out there? So that when we're building or we're helping this new generation of leaders and the workers to just grow, that we actually help them be really good leaders, really good upstanders and potentially less frequent perpetrators?
Kim: It's really interesting. So I have twins who are thirteen, a boy and a girl. So I have this little gender experiment going on. I remember at one point when my son was in kindergarten he was taking a bath and he stuck his head out of the shower curtain and he said, “Mom, boys are smarter than girls, right?” Poor kid. He said to me the other day, “I'll never forget that conversation.” But it was, I think, it was really important to me to push him hard, really hard on that.
And, you know, he plays baseball, he loves playing baseball and he has had some coaches who are wonderful and then he's had some other coaches. Anytime you divide the sexes, you know, you're going to get some bias and prejudice. He's had some others who have said some really gross things and, you know, I've responded very strongly. And it was tricky to respond, you know, 'cause it was his coach but I wanted him to know that it's not okay. This coach said, “Well anyway am I gonna repeat it.” It pissed me off but I think it's really important. I think you're gonna have these moments where these kids say or do things that are problematic.
But then there was another time when he came home, it was during Black Lives Matter, and he kind of curled up in my lap and he said, “Mom, I'm so ashamed to be a white boy”, and it broke my heart. I said, “You know what, Battel,” his name is Battel, “it's so important that you not feel ashamed of who you are. You should feel proud of who you are. And that's why it's so important to be a good upstander, to notice when things are problematic because if you don't you're gonna feel ashamed of yourself.” You know, I want him to do that for justice sake but I also want him to do it for his own sake so he doesn't feel ashamed, he doesn't get slid by the bad behavior of a few people around him and of the biases that are baked into our society at large.
Sohrab: Yeah, I like the point that you mentioned, Kim because I think the moment you feel ashamed you put yourself in the position of the victim and then you don't have agency whereas we acknowledge that you are privileged and you are okay with who you are because it's not your fault that you have this privilege. But now I could think about what can I do with my privilege and so thank you. I mean I'm also a parent of three kids, the question that Shani raised was very important to me as well. Now we're at the end of our time box unfortunately. I think both of us could speak to you for at least another hour but we want to be conscious of your time and appreciate very much that you took this time to spend with us dialing in very early in the morning from where you are. So thank you for that, Kim and I hope that we meet again at some point, maybe in real life maybe over another interview. Thank you so much.
Kim: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Shani: Thank you, Kim.