In the weeks leading up to our annual conference, Teaching, Learning, and Coaching, I’ll be posting interviews with the experts who will be presenting at the conference. The interviews will surface many different ways of looking at coaching, and like the conference itself, I hope they inspire, educate and provoke new thinking. I don’t agree with everything I hear in the interviews, but I am grateful for others’ thinking. We move forward by challenging our beliefs, and I hope you feel challenged too. You can keep up with the interviews by subscribing to this blog.

This week’s interview: Michael Bungay Stanier

Michael Bungay Stanier is a heck of a nice guy who also has had a deep influence on my thinking. If you pick up a copy of my new book The Impact Cycle you’ll see his ideas everywhere. Michael is the founder and Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company best known for teaching 10-minute coaching so busy managers build stronger teams and get better results. He has written a number of books. His latest, the Wall Street Journal best-seller The Coaching Habit, has sold nearly a quarter of a million copies. It has been praised as one of the few business books that actually makes people laugh out loud. He’s proudest of a book called End Malaria, a collection of essays on how to have more impact in the world that raised $400,000 for the fight against malaria.

He was the first Canadian Coach of the Year, is a Rhodes Scholar, and has been recognized as the #3 Coaching Guru in the world.

How did you come to write about coaching?

I have been involved in coaching formally for 15-20 years and informally well before that, so I’ve had time to accumulate opinions about what works in coaching and what doesn’t work, what’s myth, and what’s practical and useful. I’ve written books before – my most recent book, The Coaching Habit, is my fifth book; to me writing books is a useful way of getting ideas out into the world.

One of the great motivators for me to write a book is frustration with what’s happening and believing you have got something useful, interesting, and different to share. I am a huge advocate of peer coaching, and I get frustrated when coaching is taught, explained, or practiced in a way that makes it sound a little privileged, a little touchy-feely, like soft skills that aren’t important. I am passionate about coaching and want coaching to feel like an everyday way of interacting with people – between adults and children, between managers and bosses, and between managers and their team. Coaching is not a profession but a way of showing up and being with each other. I write because I think I have something interesting and different to say that can help others understand coaching as a concept and a practice.

Tell me a bit about your publications on coaching and also elaborate on other books

The very first book I wrote about 10 years ago is called Get Un-stuck and Get Going on the Stuff That Matters. Actually, it’s not a book in the traditional sense; it’s more like one of those kids’ flip books – the ones where the pages are cut into three horizontal strips so you may have a ballerina’s head, a soccer player’s body, and a scuba diver’s legs.

From my background in innovation and creativity, I have realized that one of the most important things coaching does is that it helps people generate better ideas and possibilities so that they make more courageous choices about what they end up doing. I knew some techniques to help people generate better ideas, and that’s the way this book came about.

When you open the book, you can flip the sections into one of the 25,000 different combinations. The book asks you three questions to provoke you to think differently about the ideas you have and what other possibilities are out there. So, that was my very first book, really kind of practical; it will help you generate options and almost self-coach in terms of the way you might work with the ideas presented.

Another book, Do More Great Work, is less about asking questions and more about working through exercises to drive self-awareness and to do great work, By great work, I’m talking about work that has more impact and is more meaningful. The set-up for this book, very simply, is to say that there are three types of work: bad work, good work, and great work.

Bad work could be thought of as waste of time, soul-sucking bureaucracy and, let’s face it, teachers and administrators have plenty of that going on. Then there’s good work; good work is best defined in the way a job description reads: productive, effective, makes a difference, has an important role to play. Great work, in turn, is work that has more impact, makes more of a difference, and has more meaning, so it speaks to your values, what matters to you. I want people to be able to do less good work and more great work. So, Do More Great Work includes 15-16 exercises designed to help people identify, start, and sustain the quest to do more great work.

Finally, my most recent book, The Coaching Habit, is explicitly about coaching; it’s not about turning people into coaches but about helping them be more coach-like. What I mean by being more coach-like is simply how to help people stay curious a little bit longer and how to help people rush to action and advice-giving a little more slowly. It turns out that most people, no matter what their profession is, tend to be advice-giving maniacs. They love to give people the answers, and that’s the behavior I am trying to shift. So in this book, we spend the first chapter talking about the science of habit building and why you need to understand what a habit is so that you can be more deliberate about changing your behavior. The book then goes on to pose seven questions that help you on the quest to be more coach-like.

What are some of the core ideas in your approach to coaching?

The core idea is to start with three principles: be lazy, be curious, be often. I realize that at least some of these principles are fairly provocative, but let me explain what each of them means. Be lazy is a reminder to stop rushing in to fix things, do things, solve things for others – and instead let them have the opportunity to do that for themselves. The problem is that when most people rush in to do all that, two things happen. It leaves them feeling exhausted, frustrated, a bottle neck in their own lives and, often, even though the intention is good, rushing in is actually a disempowering act. I just saw Anne Lamott, who’s a great writer on writing (her book is called Bird By Bird) on TEDTalk, speaking about the 12 things she has learned about life from writing. Among these, I especially love number three – stop pushing your help on people because your advice is not nearly as good as you think it is. That’s really what being lazy is about.

The second principle, being curious, is an acknowledgment of the fact that many of us are advice-giving maniacs and a reminder to slow down the rush to advice-giving and stay curious a bit longer. Finally, being often means recognizing that being more coach-like isn’t an occasional, formal act, like “Hey, Jim, come into my office because I’m going to coach you now.” Instead, it’s understanding that every interaction we have can be a bit more coach-like.

Those three principles set us up for this deep belief that people can coach in 10 minutes or less. This is important because one of the great barriers to feeling that you can coach is believing you don’t have time for this stuff; besides, most people have in mind the role model of a life coach or an executive coach who comes in to do an hour of coaching once every two weeks. But that model doesn’t work for normal people. Those of us who have a life need to integrate coaching into our everyday actions, and my belief is that if you can’t coach in 10 minutes or less, you don’t have time to coach. Therefore, the goal is not to add coaching as an obligation to what you are already doing but to transform what are you currently doing so that it becomes more coach-like. All of that is the under-the-water iceberg that leads to the seven core questions posed in The Coaching Habit; that is, if you buy into being lazy, being curious, and being often, if you understand the importance of coaching being 10 minutes or less, and if you understand that being more coach-like is simply staying curious a little bit longer and transforming what you currently do so you are more curious, then the seven core questions are a great way of actually putting all of that into action.

What distinguishes your work from other people’s work on coaching?

If you think about The Coaching Habit, here’s how it’s different from other books on coaching. First, I spend no time trying to explain coaching, why coaching is good, or why we should all be coach-like. I just go, “Look, coaching, you get it, don’t you? Let’s get going on this.” Second, I try to make coaching feel accessible and doable to everybody, not just a few people; in short, I am trying to democratize coaching. Third, I emphasize this idea of coaching as a way of being with each other rather than a formal act. Fourth, I am a follower of Einstein’s quote, “Things should be as simple as possible but no simpler,” so I’m trying to demystify what coaching is – it’s not a strange, archaic way of doing stuff; it’s simply about being able to ask some good questions and then offering seven good questions. Finally, I hope that people enjoy reading the book because it has a sense of humor. I find that too many business and self-help books take themselves too seriously, so I incorporate a degree of lightness and playfulness in the book … life is way too important to be taken too seriously. You’ve got to have a sense of humor!

What have been some of your key learnings over the past two years?

I think one of the delightful discoveries I have made over the last couple of years is that coaching is a universal skill. I kind of knew that already, but when I wrote The Coaching Habit, I had to pick an audience, and I picked engaged mid-level managers in an organization. These folks like their job, they are trying to do their best by themselves and their team, they are trying to make a difference in the work they do, they want their organization to succeed, but they feel a bit overwhelmed. They feel like there must be something they can do to lift their game. My answer to them was like, “let me show you how being more coach-like can lift your game so that your life is better, so that your team’s life is better, and so that you get to do more great work – work that has more impact and that has more meaning.
What’s been so cool is that this book has been read by people who are on a different life path than being engaged middle managers. Parents, teachers, sports coaches, all sorts of people, tell me that this book is useful, that they are enjoying it, and that they are applying it and that it is making a difference in the people with whom they work. That kind of response is exciting for me.

What’s a good metaphor for what coaches do?

I’m not sure if the following is a metaphor, but I’ll give you a sense of what I think the cycle of good coaching looks like. There are three parts to it. The first is to create new insight, gaining new insight about the situation at hand and also about yourself. You know yourself in the context of the situation, so a good question often creates an aha moment of “I see differently.” You say, “I didn’t even know that I knew that, but now I do.” So, insight is the first part. Insight leads to action, and action is behavior change. That is, you do something differently as a result of that insight. If all you get is insight but nothing changes, it’s a wasted opportunity. In addition, if you change stuff but you’re not sure why, it’s not a sustainable opportunity. But, ideally, when you have insight, that leads to action and action leads to impact. In other words, the world is better because of the work that we do here. So, the cycle involves insight, action, and impact. Ideally, once you create new impact, you get to see the world as new and different. That, in turn, creates another insight, and it becomes a virtuous cycle.

What else do people need to know about your approach to coaching?

I remember once seeing an ad for chess, “Minutes to learn, a lifetime to master.” I think that’s also true about coaching – I think coaching is pretty simple. The essence of being more coach-like is pretty straightforward: being lazy, being curious, and being often. But here is what I also know: Being simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. I think it’s simple and difficult at the same time because what we’re expecting people to do is to change their behavior in a fundamental way. They are going to stay curious a little bit longer. They’re going to rush to action and advice-giving a little more slowly. That can be difficult because most people are wired, triggered, to leap into advice-giving very quickly, so trying to shift that behavior takes time, dedication, and focus. That’s why we start with the habit-building stuff because it’s never enough to read a book and say, “OK, I love it, and I am going to try and be more coach-like.” But if you more deliberately build new habits, then there’s a chance that a behavior shift will happen.

Since our conference theme is all about the kids, please tell me a bit about the impact your work has on children

I don’t have children of my own, so what I know about this stuff comes to me second hand; and honestly, even if I had children of my own, they’d probably ignore the work I do, so I wouldn’t be able to do it with my kids anyway. There’s nothing like your family members to wind you up. But we operate within an educational system that historically has placed a high value on having the right answer, so teachers and students alike are pressured to push for the answer; sadly, what gets squeezed out in the process is curiosity.

But I also know that as children become adults, they will be moving into the work force. However, we are not sure what the careers of the future will look like. Thanks to globalization and artificial intelligence, a bunch of stuff can get outsourced, which means a lot of thinking will be outsourced to computers. While nobody is totally sure, we do know that the ability to think well and understand why you’re thinking, and expanding your potential is an essential part of what will make people successful in the future. So, my hope is, and this is partly why I’m so excited to speak at the conference, that if I can teach people anything that feels useful and that kind of echoes on to classrooms anywhere, that could be a really powerful way of helping people, not just learn how to provide the answer but to learn how to think differently about the world.

Please provide a quick summary of what you are going to present to TLC

We’re going to dig into the seven questions that I’ve been talking about from The Coaching Habit. The sessions will be highly interactive, highly practical, and will actually combine some of the content we’ve talked about in this interview. This idea of great work, of habit building, of a few good questions will take you along way.

To learn more about the TLC conference, click here:  Teaching, Learning, Coaching Conference