Making Better Episode 15: Michael Bungay Stanier
(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.
Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader
Francis: Hi, I’m Francis DiDonato
Chris: And this is Episode 15 of Making Better podcast, featuring author and business coach Michael Bungay Spanier.
Francis: Now business coach—there’s a term that I wouldn’t normally be too excited about. because I wouldn’t really define myself as like a rabid capitalist or anything. However, I think in regard to optimizing human interaction and communication, we can actually learn a lot from business.
Chris: Yes, there’s a lot that goes on, I noticed a lot from my own career as a manager that came up in the interview, and I think Michael does an awful good job at communication in general, whether you’re using the ideas he presents in business or you’re using them just in your regular day-to-day life.
Francis: Indeed. So shall we?
Chris: Let’s get on to the interview.
Chris: Michael Bungay Stanier, welcome to Making Better!
MBS: I am delighted to be here. I just love the whole theme of the podcast, which is, how do we champion the work that we do to make this world a better place, so I’m really excited to be part of the conversation with you.
Francis: Thank you very much.
Chris: Can we start with a bit of your background? Where you grew up, and going on to be a Rhodes Scholar and, how did you end up in Canada?
MBS: I am Australian by birth, born there fifty-some years ago, fifty-two years ago or something like that, and I had an awesome childhood growing up. I mean, I grew up in Canberra, the little-known national capital of Australia, sort of in between Sydney and Melbourne there. Went to high school in Canberra, liked it there, went to university in Canberra, to the Australian National University, and there I did something called an Arts Law Degree. So Arts is a B.A. in literature, which is what I love and what I was actually OK at, and then there’s a law degree, which in Australia is an undergraduate degree. And you often do these combined degrees to kind of have a kind of richer educational experience, and make your qualifications kind of a bit more diverse. Anyway, law I was not so good at, honestly. I struggled, didn’t really get it, I wasn’t really interested in it—I finished my law degree being sued by one of my law school lecturers for defamation, which if nothing else, should have been the clue that a law career was never going to be in the cards for me. What saved me from becoming a sad and unhappy and barely adequate lawyer, was winning this Rhodes scholarship—which is fantastic, and I applied to be a Rhodes scholar because my dad is actually British. He actually grew up in Oxford, and so he went to Oxford University, and I was like, OK, that’s how I get to go to Oxford University as well, be a Rhodes Scholar. Got to Oxford, where I did a Masters degree, but really the main thing that happened at Oxford is, number one, I met my wife, Marcella; and number two, I was plucked out of that stream of becoming a lawyer. So that was great, that got me to England, meeting Marcella meant that I didn’t rush back to Australia. And I’d now spent eight years in universities, so I’m now basically both over-educated and largely useless. So, I still don’t know what I want to do with my life, what’s going on, and I got my first job, which was in the world of innovation and creativity. I actually helped invent products and invent services for companies, and that took me to England and London, and then I joined the [Change] management consultancy, helping organizations evolve and grow. That took me to Boston, and then in 2001 I moved from Boston—actually Cambridge, which I know is where you are some of the time, Chris—from Boston and Cambridge up to Toronto in 2001, and shortly after that I started my own company called Boxed Crayons, and have been going since then.
Chris: And how did that lead to what you call Business Coaching, and how did you end up where you are now?
MBS: I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the saying, “Inspiration is when your past suddenly makes sense”—because I’ve never really bought in to the idea of these people who make plans and then actually follow them through and they ended up being the thing that they decided to be 20 years earlier. That certainly wasn’t my experience, I kind of stumbled around from spot to spot. When I was a teenager, I just figured out that I was good at listening to people. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to slightly angst-y teenage friends about their complicated love lives, and as I had no love life whatsoever, I was like, “oh, I can listen to your stories, at the least.” And I remember thinking, as a kind of 16 year old, I’m good at listening to people but I don’t know what I’m doing, and I wonder if there’s a better way to listen and a better way to be helpful in these types of conversations. When I went to university, I joined a telephone crisis hotline, a kind of youth suicide hotline, and that taught me the first basics of how to be present, how to ask good questions, how to be curious and how to be supportive and helpful in a conversation. And honestly, that thread has then just carried through all my life. You know, when I worked in these consulting roles, I would often reframe what I was doing not as consulting, but as coaching. And when I moved to Toronto, I did my formal coach training, built up a coaching practice, and then discovered that actually I didn’t like coaching—it was a bit of a shock—but I kind of figured out that what I liked doing was teaching and writing and being in front of audiences, so that’s where I moved from not so much the business coaching side myself, but more, how do I teach other people to be more coach like, so that they can have better relationships, be more effective in the business that they do, and effectively just, to coin a phrase, make things better.
Chris: How would you say that business coaching differs from coaching in sports or something like that, and what’s the difference between coaching and mentoring?
MBS: Those are two good questions. So let me take one at a time. Part of the challenge with coaching in generation is that there’s about 927 definitions of it. Everybody’s heard of coaching, and context makes all the difference. So we all can conjure up an idea of what a sports coach looks like, you know, somebody with a whistle around their neck and telling people to run laps or do drills up and down the ice, depending on what country you’re in. And then there’s life coaches, which are people going, look, I’m going to help you figure out what you want to do with your life, and have a happier life. And there’s executive coaches, which are where I come in, and I support high potential people, or senior people in businesses. So you’re quite right, there’s a whole bunch of different ways of doing it. Here’s something that I think unifies all of these different types of coaches, which is effectively they’re all teachers. They’re all looking to say, let me help you figure some stuff out and actually get closer to the goals that you want to achieve. And what all coaches have, is a mix of advice and curiosity to help people move forward. And I take the stand that the more curiosity people can bring into their conversations, the better questions that they can ask, the more effective they are as teachers and the more effective they are as coaches. So it is a standard belief that most sports coaches—you don’t ask people questions, you tell them what to do, like go run around the field, or go sprint up and down the ice, or go juggle the knives or whatever it is. But what you find is that coaches who work with the very best sporting teams in the world, or the best sporting players, ‘cause you know, individual coaches such as people who coach tennis players, they don’t spend a whole lot of time telling people what to do, they spend a whole lot of time asking the questions that help people go deeper into solving their own problems. That’s the unifying piece between coaches, whatever context shows up, which is like, this mix between some advice, but the better you are, the more questions you ask. Then the second question you asked, which is, OK, coaching and mentoring, what’s the difference between the two—and there is a difference. Mentors are often people who have walked the path that you’ve walked, so if our mutual friend Chris Smart, who is the audio producer for this podcast, is going, look, I’m looking for a mentor around podcast production, you’re going to find some other experienced podcaster to go, hey, take me through how you produce this. You know, somebody who is a mentor, I mean it literally comes from the Greek story around Ulysses, and Ulysses had a mentor as a guide for one of the characters in Ulysses. A coach is somebody who doesn’t necessarily, hasn’t necessarily walked that path, but is able to still shape a good learning experience. So, for instance, with Chris Smart, technical audio producer here, I couldn’t be a mentor to him because I know very little about audio production. I could be a coach for him, though, because I know to ask good questions, and I could challenge him on what he’s attempting to achieve and how he’s thinking about marketing and where he could find ways of improving his skill. So I think there’s a difference there. In short, good mentors have experience, but the best mentors ask good questions.
Chris: I mentor an awful lot of young blind people, and as you say, if they’re interested in a career in software engineering, I’m quite able to help them. Even if they’re 16 years old today, I can help guide them along the way.
MBS: Yeah. But you’re beyond the specific mentoring around software development, is a way that you could coach them, regardless, in whether they want that path. I mean, in my past I’ve worked with people with disabilities—I’m thinking of a guy with an acquired brain injury from a car crash, and I didn’t have that experience of knowing what that was like, I didn’t have the technical expertise to understand what acquired brain injury meant and the implications of that, and I could still coach him around that. So I couldn’t mentor him, but I could still coach him.
Chris: And what to you say to skeptics who might say that a lot of this sounds like common sense?
MBS: Well, they’re right, often. What people often need is not some sort of “aha” or “here’s the answer that I just hadn’t thought of.” What people often need and benefit from in a coaching conversation is one, feeling that they’ve got somebody on their side; two, somebody who’s giving them space to figure some stuff out, and you’re actually creating some thinking time and some reflection time, to be encouraged; thirdly, somebody who’s a cheerleader, who’ll go, look, I think you can do this, this is what I see in you, this is why I believe in your. So, if you think the job of a coach is to uncover the answer that’s never been thought of before, then you’re setting yourself up for failure, because most answers have been figured out. If you’re thinking that a coach is somebody who can actually help you generate a new insight about yourself or about the situation, help you have the courage to try something new and take some first steps and experiment, to help give you the resilience to help you get through the struggles and the difficulties and go, “ah, I tried that, it didn’t work”—do I choose to take that personally, do I give up? Well then, that’s what coaching can really bring, and that just goes beyond what common sense is.
Chris: In my own experience, my fundamental management basics is, I’m not the expert here, I’m the member of the team who handles the management tasks. And I do a lot of what I call ‘deferring to the expert,’ and sometimes the expert is the most junior member of the team, they just happen to know one specific area better than the others. And often the advice I end up giving an engineer is, well go ask this other engineer, he or she has worked on something rather similar in the past. I do an awful lot of trying to get the team—in my experience, I often find two people together can be more productive than two people separately.
MBS: You totally right. I mean—so, I wrote a book four years ago called The Coaching Habit, and it’s a big champion of this kind of, look, slow down the rush to give advice, stay curious a little bit longer, ask better questions, because actually then magic can happen as part of that. In this new book that’s coming out, called The Advice Trap, I kind of take that a little bit further and I go, no really, here’s why you shouldn’t give as much advice as you want to give, and there are three reasons: the first is, and I think this is what you’re pointing to, Chris, right away—that actually, most of the time you don’t really know what the real challenge is yet. You get seduced into thinking that the first thing that somebody puts on the table is the real challenge, and quite frankly, mostly it’s their first [?], stab in the dark, or it’s an early hypothesis; but rarely is the first challenge the real challenge. But, you know, let’s just say that somehow, miraculously, that they brought this perfectly and accurately articulated challenge to the table, well then here’s the second reason why you should be skeptical about your advice—your advice isn’t nearly as good as you think it is. You’ve got all these cognitive biases telling us that, no no, my advice is pretty miraculous, pretty wonderful, but the science will tell you that it’s actually not. A lot of the time, it’s just not as good as you hoped it would be. But let’s just pretend that, not only do you have the right challenge figured out, and you’re like this is exactly what I should be working on, and you’ve also got a brilliant idea, it’s the best idea, it’s the best possible solution. The third reason why advice is overrated is that, even if you know the real challenge, even you’re the person with the best possible idea, it’s not often the best act of leadership to be the person providing the idea. If you’re the senior person, you’re just like you are in these conversations, Chris, and you’re like ‘here’s my idea,’ what that does is it sucks the oxogen out of the room, and by oxogen I mean not just enthusiasm but autonomy, and trust, self-sufficiency, competence and confidence, everything/body pays a price for you as the boss being the person who’s always providing the answer.
Chris: When I’m building a team, one of the things I do in job interviews is ask an engineering related question that I know the candidate cannot possibly know the answer to. And what I want to hear is the candidate’s steps to how they’re going to solve this problem.
MBS: It’s like show you’re working, right? It’s like, I want to see the struggle, because the struggle tells me everything, it’s far more interesting than t he fast answer you might give.
Chris: Exactly. Because nobody is going to know every algorithm off the top of their head—you can be a PhD in computer science and you’re not going to know everything, and I rarely got a PhD in computer science to apply for a job. But for me it was seeing if they’re willing to ask for help. In fact, I used to work at a company called Turning Point Software, where we were run—it’s where I learned pretty much everything I know about managing software engineers—and we were a high-end consulting company, so everyone there was very talented. So we would almost always, to break the big egos walking in the door, was assign somebody a task that was way to hard to solve on their own, and then wait for them to come out of their office to ask for help.
Francis: I wonder if there’s like kind of a difficulty in harnessing people’s creativity in their management potential, their excitement about work.
MBS: Yeah, it’s a powerful question. I mean, there’s been research for years from firms like Gallup and the like that say the percentage of people who feel engaged in their work is depressingly low, it’s like I think 40% or maybe as high as 50%, but I don’t think it’s that high. And if you just think for a moment and you go, boy, what would an organization be like if we could unleash the potential of the people here? So that they were engaged, and felt that they were working on stuff that mattered, and felt that they’re excited and felt empowered and supported, all of those words. If we could turn organizations into that, how would we do that? Now, I don’t know if any of you have ever worked with big organizations before, I have, and it can be a bit of a soul-crushing experience. You become a small cog in a big machine, and here the machine is driven by capitalism, so the quarterly results and are you making money and are you making a profit and shareholders are your number one stakeholder—but there was a report put out recently, there’s a statement actually from the—I think it’s called the Council of Business? It’s based in the US, it’s like all the CEOs, many of the CEOs from the Fortune 500. They put out a statement going, ‘we have to think of business as not just being driven by shareholder requirements to make a profit, we have to think of all the stakeholders that are involved.’ So, you know, Francis, I think that it’s true that there’s just, as far as I’ve known forever, organizations asking the question ‘what does it mean that we can do business well and also have a culture that allows people to thrive and be at their very best,’ and it’s difficult, because the trend is always to just keep working, get it done. We started with the industrial revolution, with factories, and now we’ve just kind of adjusted that slightly.
Francis: When I first worked in industry, and it was for a big company, I think the most shocking thing for me was the complete lack of loyalty that was implicit in working for these people, and you know, on the one hand to be like a team player and get “meets or exceeds expectations” on your reviews, you’d be expected if need be to miss your kid’s birthday party. But the minute you leave that office and get your paycheck, everything that that business owes you is done, there’s no sense that you’re in this together, building up a business and that your sacrifice has any meaning outside of that particular pay period, you know?
Chris: In the software world, I mean, the 60-hour work week is pretty standard, so it becomes your entire life. I mean, your social life becomes the people you work with, because all your friends you used to know stopped calling you because you never have time to go out.
MBS: Right. It’s an interesting balance, because—take some of the really big tech companies that we call know of, like Google. You know, I’ve gone and hung out on the Google campus a few times, it’s pretty awesome, quite frankly. You know, you’ve got amazing food, dry cleaners, sporting field, masseurs, it’s really set up to be a pretty pleasant place to work, and there’s a couple of things going on there. One is, it’s like we want our people to feel that they’re well treated and they’re well looked-after, and that’s absolutely a key part of it. The other is like, this is a really comfortable prison, we’re keeping you working 60 or 70 or 80 hours and we’re making it really easy for you to not leave the campus and not do the work. And it’s not like the people who are in Google going, ‘and I’m feeling exploited’—although I’m sure some of them are feeling that way, but there’s a lot of people who go, ‘I feel very fulfilled by this work. I work really hard, I get a lot of meaning from my work, I like working 60 hours a week because that’s actually how I get a sense of purpose and engagement in my world.’ It’s complex. You know, there’s a deal of collusion on both sides around how we work together, but it’s also, coming back to your early point, there’s a large percent of people who feel very disenfranchised by their experience of working.
Francis: And it comes also to, there’s a question of what a civilized work/life balance should be.
Chris: Google is an especially strange situation. I mean, Microsoft is much more like a pyramid, a standard management structure, whereas Google gives an awful lot of autonomy to individual teams and, because those teams have budgets and schedules, they’re often terrible at cooperating with other teams within the same Google complex. I could speak specifically to their accessibility group—they have all kids of trouble getting the gmail team to cooperate with them, because they have competing priorities.
MBS: Where I go around all of this is, kind of geeking out around philosophies of management. Because if you think to yourself, ‘well, we should be able to coordinate all of this,’ you’re just massively underestimating how hard it is to navigate a complex system. Because these things are, you know, there’s like a thousand sub-cultures, there’s a thousand micro-teams—it’s a huge, complex ecosystem where you can’t get everything to line up in a machine-like way, it’s just impossible. It’s like too complex, too messy, too human. So part of what they do is they go, look, we got the money to be able to pull this off, we set up all these things and kind of Darwinian-esque, the kind of law of the jungle that the stronger ones will rise to the top, the weaker ones will drop off, and that is an interesting thing to pursue, and of course it c an be really frustrating. Because if you’ve got somebody like you, Chris, and you’re like I’m trying to just coordinate, and there’s like six different teams doing approximately the same thing, two of which directly contradict the other two in terms of what they’re trying to achieve, how do I work with that?
Chris: What I find though, when I talk to Microsoft employees, they seem to have a better sense of purpose and what they’re supposed to be doing, whereas the Google people—it seems like it’s a thousand start-ups all sharing one campus.
MBS: That’s interesting. I mean, I don’t know enough about the specifics around that. Both of those organizations are clients of the company I started, Box of Crayons, so we’ve seen a little bit into both of those companies, but we get to see just a very, very small part, very small window into that whole organization. So what we see, I can’t tell whether that’s the whole thing, or a small thing, or just my particularly good client or my particularly bad client part of that.
Chris: Getting back to your career, you were named one of the top eight business coaches in the world—how do they measure such things?
MBS: I think they’re mostly going on good looks, because that’s the only way I can explain it. I’m a very, very good looking man. You know, I don’t know—I think you’ve got to take all of these award things with a certain pinch of salt. I know that part of the reason I was recognized is the company in which I hang out, and so I’ve been part of a group for a number of years called the Marshall Goldsmith 100, and that group has a certain amount of profile, which means that when somebody is coming up with award lists, they notice that, so that helps. You know, it helps that the last book I wrote, The Coaching Habit, has been the number one coaching book, so that helps as well. But in the end, we’re just talking about this a few days after the Oscars ceremony, it’s a bunch of humans sitting around going, ‘here’s who we’re picking’ as part of this. Am I one of the best eight coaches in the world? No, I doubt I’m even close. Am I influential in the space of coaching? Yes, I am, because of the books I’ve written and the stuff I’ve put out into the world. Am I first or third or fifth or ninth? You know, it’s anybody’s guess.
Chris: How do you at Box of Crayons measure success on a project? You know, if Microsoft hires you to do something, how at the end of the day do you know if you’ve been successful?
MBS: It’s such a good question, and one that we wrestle with and our clients wrestle with as well. Part of the goal is to try and define what success looks like with the client at the start of a project, not just at the end of the project. So we’re like, what do you care about? What measures matter to you? So as an example, with Microsoft, one of the things we did was we created an online training program for them. You know, I was the guy in front of the camera, and we co-created it over so it would run for five or six weeks, and the client had some really good success criteria. They wanted to measure three or four specific things, and to see if that behavior would change, and they wanted to get a certain number of people to complete the program. And because Andrea, who’s the client, had such clear specifications, we took a poll before the training started, effectively going ‘so how often do you ask question, and is your manager good at being coach-like,’ and then we took a poll after it had finished, and you know what? We made great progress. They wanted to get x-thousand people to finish the program, we actually got 3x of those people finishing program, so we basically crushed it at Microsoft, it was amazing. Then there are other clients we work with who we’ve done training with and we’ve put some thousands of people through the training program, but because we haven’t ever quite figured out with them what matters in terms of measurement, what we have is qualitative feedback, people saying your training’s great, and I’ve changed my behavior, but often we don’t have quantitative measures so we can say ‘and this is how much it’s worth’ to the company’s bottom line.
Chris: You have four key questions you present in Coaching Habit, can you describe those questions and how they’re used?
MBS: Sure. So, in The Coaching Habit I actually lay out seven questions, or I go here’s what you’ve got, seven good questions. The idea when I wrote this book was, how do I make coaching less weird? How do I make it more accessible for people? And part of it is to try and de-complicate it, to say look, it’s actually not this sort of mysterious, arcane ritual. If you can stay curious a little bit longer, then you’re going to be more coach-like and you’re going to be more effective as a manager, as a leader, as a human being. And how do you be curious a little bit longer? Well, you have some good questions to ask. And so when I was writing this book, I was back and forth going, OK, is it a hundred and twenty questions, is it three questions, is it something in between? And I went back and forth as I wrote different drafts, but I kind of ended up on the seven questions. So I’ll tell you a few of them, and people can google what are the seven questions from The Coaching Habit and you’ll find them easy enough, ‘cause they’re all over the internet. But I’m a particular fan of the kick-start questions, so this is a helpful way of starting any conversation, particularly kind of one-to-one, and the kick-start question is simply, “what’s on your mind?” Some people will recognize it as the Facebook question, ‘cause that’s the question Facebook asks to get people typing, so obviously, it’s got to work fairly well. But what I love about “what’s on your mind?” is it says to people, tell me what’s going on, you tell me rather than me telling you, that’s an empowering act. But don’t tell me anything and don’t tell me everything, tell me about the stuff that really matters, so that we can have a conversation about the stuff that really matters. And I’ve found the kickstart question just happens to be particularly good at opening things up, so the person talks about what matters to them, but also directing them so we get into the juicy stuff fast. Let me rattle through the list of the seven questions.
The first one is the kickstart question, which is how do you get a conversation moving? And the question is: “So what’s on your mind?” The second one is the focus question, and it carries the insight that the first challenge that people bring up is almost never the real challenge. So the question to ask here is, “So what’s the real challenge here for you?” The third question, best coaching question in the world, and that question is, “And what else?” That holds the insight that the first answer is never their only answer, and if you ask the question and then just run with the first answer, everybody’s missing a trick. Question number four, the foundation question: “What do you want?” You know, it really matters how you ask that question, because it can come across a bit kind of grumpy or clippy or kind of, whatever, but if you show up with genuine curiosity going, OK, that’s the real challenge for you, what do you want here? then that can go into really interesting places. It’s a really good question to ask yourself as well, if you’re in some form of working relationship with somebody and it’s not working quite as well as you’d like and you’ve got to try and figure stuff out, asking yourself “what do I want?” helps set you up to have the conversation, to give the feedback, whatever it might be. Number five is the strategy question—this is like about, OK, let’s make clear the choices you’re making, the opportunity cost that being involved in the choices you’ll make. So “if you’re saying yes to this, what must you say no to?” Because I’ve found that too many of us are actually pretty poor at saying no to the stuff we should say no to. Number six, the lazy question, kind of provocatively titled, which is “How can I help?” What we’re trying to do with the lazy question is to stop people feeling like they need to jump in and fix things, and ironically asking how can I help slows down the rush to jump in and help. And then the seventh and final question is the learning question, which is “What was most useful or most valuable here for you?”
Chris: There were two management related books that were really influential on my career. The first was The Mythical Man-Month and the second was out of Harvard, and it was Management By Walking Around. Are you familiar with either of those?
MBS: I know Management By Walking Around, I haven’t heard about The Mythical Man-Month. That sounds very intriguing. What’s that about?
Chris: The fundamental thesis is that nine women can’t have a baby in one month, that the solution to a scheduling problem is not throw more people at it.
MBS: I’ve heard that metaphor before, it’s perfect. What it reminds me of is a model, a way of seeing the world, which talks about the difference between simple, complicated and complex. I don’t know if you know this as a descriptor—here’s the model, simply. So simple is, as you’d guess, a simple formula. In the book I read, they said it’s like baking cake. And obviously, even if you’re Michael, you don’t know how to bake very well, you follow instructions; take the cake mix, add some water, add an egg, beat it up, put it in the oven for x number of minutes at y number of degrees, you’re going to get a cake. It might not be Cordon Blu, but it’s going to be a cake—that’s simple. Complicated is, as they say, like launching a spaceship. It’s hard, but if actually you follow all the spreadsheets in the right order and you tick off all the tick-boxes in the right order and you do all the to-dos in the right order, then you’ve got a decent chance of getting a spaceship up into orbit. That’s complicated. Complex they describe as being like a flock of birds, particularly like those kind of murmurations of starlings, you know, they kind of swirl around and change shape and—you know when birds are flying together in that kind of close flock, nobody is thinking to themselves, what’s my to-do list? or what’s my GANT chart look like for this particular flying thing? They’re operating on some core principles, and for birds it’s fly towards the center, fly as close to the other birds as possible, don’t run into the other birds. What those principles have that define the complex system, and kind of the emergence outcome that complex systems generate, is these principles that are in tension with each other. You know, there’s a tension between “fly as close to other birds as possible” and “don’t run into the other birds.” There’s a tension between “fly into the center” and “don’t run into the other birds.” It’s that tension that allows kind of a degree of autonomy and self-directedness, but within a system that is consistent. And all of this is a very long explanation to kind of react to the idea of the man month, which is it’s very easy to reduce organizational life down to this kind of mathematical formula, which is like if I just add another three people, I’ll be able to do 30% more 30% better. And just as we’re saying here, which is like, do you know what? Most organizations and most projects aren’t about complication, in other words more capacity equals more success; they’re complex and actually the thinking that needs to be done is, what’s the real challenge? What are we really working on? Who, are we using all the skills in the group? As a group, do we have a way of figuring our dysfunction? Because every group is dysfunctional. How do we process miscommunication? How do we process disappointment, how do we build resilience into this team so that it can get through the hard stuff together? And that’s where you get into the juicy conversations, but that’s not figured out by a mathematical formula.
Chris: In a complex system, it’s easy to get stuck, and you write about getting un-stuck. Can you speak to that?
MBS: That’s a broad question. You know, there’s always an interesting place to look between your own agency, your own ability to get yourself unstuck, and to look at a system and go, how is the system getting me stuck? How does the system need to change for me to get un-stuck? I personally brought up in the system where it’s like, come on Michael, step up and figure this out, you’re a big boy—if things aren’t working then it’s up to you to solve this and get it sorted. And that’s a very convenient narrative for me to have, because I feel empowered by that quite often. But I also come from the place that I am a able, white, tall over-educated middle-class man that, basically, when it comes to privilege, has been dealt all the right cards. So quite frankly, if anybody can kind of figure this out by themselves, it should be people who have a profile like mine. You got access to all the assets, not just tangible, physical ones but just those more intangible ones around sense of being centered, a sense of being connected, a sense of being in the center of things rather than on the outskirts of things. If you’re on the outskirts, and whether that’s because of a disability that you might have because of your gender or your race or whatever, I think getting stuck is often not about you at all, it’s about a system that puts you in a place to get stuck. And that’s a more complex thing to tackle, and honestly Chris, you probably know more about that than I do.
Chris: Do your techniques for business coaching work in small companies as well as they do in big ones?
MBS: Honestly, I would say that my techniques, which aren’t that sophisticated—you know, in the end it’s like, here are some good questions, ask them more often. Listen to the answer. They work pretty well in organizational life. Honestly, if you work with other human beings, this stuff works. You know, if you have spouse, ask him or her some questions. If you have kids, stay curious a little bit longer. If you have a really small company of like, you plus one other person, approaching that with a way of engaging them as human beings rather than as something else, can make all the difference. So, yeah, it boils down to it for me, I’m like, this stuff is about humans connecting with human beings, and it doesn’t really matter the context that you’re in.
Francis: Is it realistic for people nowadays, with the job market as it is, to try to figure out what their life’s passion is and expect to turn it into a career?
MBS: Yeah, that’s a really juicy question, because you see that advice all the time—just find out what your passion is, and then pursue it and turn it into money—and I don’t see that working out lots of times. So I see a couple of things happening. The first is, a lot of people go, I don’t even know what I’m passionate about. And OK, even if I do know what I’m passionate about, and it’s collecting china dolls, how does that become a career? It doesn’t help me at all. But even if you are passionate about it…so let’s go to our friend Chris Smart, who’s the producer of the podcast. He might be going, you know what, I am passionate about podcasting. I love it, I love it! But what can often happen is if you then turn your passion into a profession, it kind of loses some of the magic, because now you’re like, I’ve got to chase money, I’ve got to chase an audience, I don’t get to do the stuff that I love so much because I’ve got to do all the other stuff that’s required to turn it into a business. But then I think there’s another twist on this, which is I think that what you become passionate about often emerges from the work that you’re doing, or the life that you’re living. So honestly, 15 years ago, if somebody said to me, you’re going to become a kind of global authority and spokesperson around coaching, I’d be like ‘really? I don’t even know what coaching is. How am I gonna do that?’ And it doesn’t even sound that exciting. So to my surprise, I’m like, OK, the work has told me what I’m actually most interested in. And it’s through doing the work that you uncover your passion.
Chris: We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion on this podcast, yet all of the business coaches seem to be white men. Is there an issue with diversity in the management’s world, and is there some way we can address that?
MBS: Yes, there’s a problem with diversity in the business world. There’s a problem with diversity just amongst gender, as a starting point. You look at the number of women who are CEOs of big companies, and it’s tiny. You know, you walk down through an aircraft and you’re walking through business class, and you look around and it’s like, it’s almost all old white people, mostly men. And I’m one of those people quite often. So yes, there’s an issue around diversity, around that, not to mention an issue around kind of the whiteness, not to mention the issue around ability and disability as well. So there’s a lot of people doing a lot of great work around this, getting beyond just the stock-photo diversity. And I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this, those stock photos that are out there which are around, you know, here’s a picture of a very happy company at work, and you’ve got somebody who kind of represents African-Americans, somebody who’s asian, somebody who’s white, somebody who’s young, somebody who’s old, somebody who’s got a visible disability of some sort—and you’re like, oh wow, you really like needing to tick all the boxes in a single photograph. And it just feels manipulative, it doesn’t feel realistic. But there are lots of people I know who are like, no, I’m being a champion for you to actually understand diversity in its more subtle forms, which is not just can we get somebody else sitting in the room that looks a bit different, to how do we bring diverse sorts of opinions, diverse approaches to a challenge, diverse ways of seeing the world and actually contribute in a way that makes our organization better.
Chris: When I was VP of engineering at Freedom Scientific, a company here in Florida, I was really interested in making my team more diverse, and I was pretty successful getting more women involved, but my applicant pool was 85-90% white men. I was able to find some really outstanding women to come work for us, but on racial issues, I only got applications from white people and asians. I didn’t get a single African American apply for a job, at a company our size we really couldn’t go out and do a whole lot of drafting.
MBS: Well, I think you see tech companies for whom this is a real challenge going, yeah, it’s not enough to address this in our recruiting process, we actually have to be investing in high schools so that a diverse pool of people are interested in tech early on, so that they follow through and then they graduate with the degrees we’re looking for, and the diversity in all sorts of ways, so that they can be hired. I mean, it’s a system issue.
Chris: You have a new book coming out at the end of this month, can you tell us about it and how it’s different from Coaching Habit?
MBS: Sure. So if The Coaching Habit is a champion for, look, here’s what you need to do to be more coach-like, take the seven questions and ask them, The Advice Trap says, hey, it’s trickier than you thought, or than I thought, to actually show up and be coach-like, to ask those seven questions. And the metaphor that runs through the book gets to how do you tame your advice monster? It’s a real way of tackling this whole idea of going, uh, you’ve got these deep habits where we just love to jump in and fix it and solve it and give advice. For your sake and for their sake and for your organization’s sake, you’ve just got to slow down the rush to give advice, and you’ve got to stay curious a little bit longer, it’s a key leadership attribute. And that’s what the book tackles, which is like what does it take for you to actually tame your advice monster.
Chris: Excellent. With all that we’ve covered, let’s move to something more general. What are your thoughts about the future, and what is it out there that makes you optimistic?
MBS: Well, I know for sure that I am lousy at predicting the future. And you know, there’s that one of those traits of humanity to feel that we’re always at the end of history, we’re like this is it, this is the culmination of the human race. And I’m like, well, it’s interesting how the human race has evolved and changed and shifted over those tens of thousands of years, and I remember reading Bill Bryson’s book many years ago called A Short History of Nearly Everything, and he said this: look, stretch out your arms from fingertip to fingertip, so you put your arms out straight and parallel. And what you’re representing in your span is the history of the earth, six or seven billion years old. And if that’s the earth, if you look at the fingernail of your pointer finger, the white bit, that kind of bit that’d clip off when you’re cutting your fingernails? That represents the entire history of humanity in the context of the age of the earth. And then of course if you go, well that represents some tens of thousands of years, where are we today in 2020 around that? You go, wow, we are a very irrelevant speck in this future. So, partly the way I think about the future is similar to that, or similar to what happens when I look up at the stars and I go, wow, there’s a billion billion billion stars up there, where it’s just a very small part of it. So hold it very lightly, enjoy your time while you’re here on earth, ‘cause you get one crack at it and you’re done. It’s an extraordinary time to be alive, because pretty much it was impossible for you to be alive at any other time in any other place. So I don’t know for sure if this makes me optimistic, but it makes me appreciative that I’m just amazingly lucky to be alive right now, and so make sure I squeeze the lemon to get the very most I can out what’s on offer.
Francis. What do you see from your work, are examples of untapped human potential that could ultimately lead to a better world?
MBS: Look, here’s my personal mission, here’s the way I put it. It’s to infect a billion people with the possibility virus. So what I mean by the possibility virus is the opportunity to say, I see the choices that I have, and I make bolder, more courageous choices. And if you track back all the stuff that I do, so much of it is around staying curious, seeing your choices, making braver choices. And I think if everybody does that, then we get a little closer to helping people tap their potential, and when we’ve got people closer to tapping their potential, we’re a little closer to living in a better world.
Chris: Other than your new book, do you have anything you’d like to promote or plug, even if it’s somebody else’s work, or something like that?
MBS: Well, for people who are interested in the book, whether or not you pick up the book and, you know, obviously it’d be great if you did but you don’t have to, but you might be interested at theadvicetrap.com, because there’s a questionnaire to figure out which of three different advice monsters is kind of strongest within you. Three different personas of the advice monster, and the questionnaire just gives you a taste of which one might be loudest, most kind of vital inside you, so that’s at theadvicetrap.com. And then in terms of what else that I’d like to mention or promote, knowing what this podcast is about and what you stand for, I’d maybe suggest another book, which is by a friend of mine called Laura Gasner-Oating, and she’s written a book called Limitless, and I think it’s a pretty good call to arms to say, believe in yourself, believe in your potential, and start fulfilling that, because we all win when people are feeling that they’re limitless and feeling that they can step up to their potential.
Chris: Well, excellent. Thank you so much for coming on Making Better.
MBS: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
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