Cerys explores missed opportunities for radical, two-way discussions L&D are avoiding in their quest for simple, KPI-friendly projects.

It is both a cliché and a truism that change is hard and that it never ends. And whilst trying to make employees feel safe, organisations are also lulling them into a false reality by avoiding tough conversations about what it takes to survive in a fully-transformed future company. Today, I want to focus on two conversations L&D are not having with employees, and why this failure to embrace Radical Candor is creating a wicked problem that is becoming increasingly hard to solve, leaving employees overwhelmed and under-engaged.

But first, a quick detour into the org-wide application of Radical Candor.

As a management tool, Radical Candor is applied on a personal relationship level, focusing on feedback. ‘Caring Personally, whilst Challenging Deeply’. It has for many become the hallmark of a good manager. But it can be a problematic framework, when viewed through the lens of hierarchy and power dynamics. There is little mention of the two-way nature of that feedback and that Radical Candor is essentially additive to the existing leadership model, not challenging its very nature. On a side note, the Dependable Candor described here by Richard Claydon is an interesting alternative to dig in to.

When elevated to the organisational level, Radical Candor takes on a new energy, where we engage all employees in a two-way dialogue about the challenges the business is facing in the tech, services, products, skills and capability layers, and where we can be honest about our responsibilities, not chip away at the commitment, time or resources needed from leaders and managers to make transformation work.

These conversations need to be facilitated from all areas of the organisation, through networks and communities, at all levels. A good place to start are the internal volunteer networks of change agents that are responsible for grassroots change, as they are already actively engaging their teams in the day-to-day challenges of digital and thus often have first-hand experience of the true impact of the cult of bare minimum learning.

Here are two conversation prompts that I think L&D could embrace to test the waters of organisational Radical Candor:

1. Let’s talk about why building digital skills isn’t enough to ensure employability

This is a conversation that I would love to see L&D initiate with employees. Learning individual digital skills is something that almost every employee is engaged with among some of the clients we have the privilege of working with – whether it is creating adoption of digital products, agility, designing digital services, data-driven decision-making or design thinking. These individual skills are needed to function and deliver in the new reality.

And whilst L&D continue to focus on KPI-friendly digital skills training and managers seek to minimise the time allocated to learning in favour of delivery, a new breed of digitally-savvy workers are looking around their teams and wondering how this can be enough to architect a new future org – and of course, it isn’t. Whilst individual skills will get you a good role, it will not help you fly. For that, we need to embrace building new capabilities, using our new skills. Capabilities need us to focus on a whole stack of skills, plus mindsets, ideas and emerging technology.

Organisations finding themselves without the workforce they need increasingly turn to partnerships, consultancies and third-parties to fill these capability gaps, making employees feel vulnerable and stuck in their legacy roles. The few with the sponsorship, knowledge or position to be a part of the future are too busy to turn around and help those trying to rise behind them.

So, individuals need to demand more from their learning experiences. Which brings me to the second conversation that needs to happen…

2. Let’s talk about the myth of driving your own career

This is one of those discussion I think employees need to have with L&D. On the surface, the increasingly popular mantras of ‘own your professional development’ and ‘being in the driving seat of your career’ are empowering and desirable in an organisation seeking to build a continuous learning culture.

But this complete change in power dynamic is unrealistic without a new kind of support. It is absolving the organisation of its half of the professional growth contract – it is true that you can’t make someone grow, but it is also true that employees do not have the same access to future strategy discussions to understand the bigger capability requirements of an organisation. You cannot grow to be what you cannot see – we need visibility and role models to help us.

We may have access to more learning content than we can absorb in a lifetime, but we need guidance, opportunities and more than just a nudge in the direction of the right mindset to ensure that our growth plan is coherent.


After school we never helped to re-tool for continuous learning. Nobody teaches us how to learn in this different environment, where theory is of limited value and opportunities to experiment and practice require sponsorship from above.

Without this retooling, the divides present in our society are further entrenched inside our organisations. Those who grew up without access to coaches and mentors continue their career building without sponsorship. Those who were first-generation university graduates continue to have to forge brand new paths, with limited understanding from their families of the burdens they carry.

We must reset this playing field for all employees, so that everyone understands how to find sponsors, coaches and mentors, how to set big goals, how to ask probing questions about org strategy and future needs, how to build or find a movement and how to partner and demand excellence from those corporate departments that must support them. Our learning experiences must support and provide this.

These are just two of the tough conversations needed, from one corporate function. Just imagine the change we could bring about by investing some time in org-wide Radical Candor across the board!

So, what org-wide radical discussions would you like to see initiated? Which corporate function needs to embrace Radical Candor and stop pretending that the bare minimum will be sufficient for survival?

Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash