The Coaching Habit

Stanier - Do-More-Great-Work-3d-225x201

Dr. Relly Nadler: This week we are talking with Michael Bungay Stanier. He is the author of numerous different books, but the one that we are going to be zeroing in on is The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, Change the Way You Lead Forever. I came across his work from one of our colleagues, Dr. Ed Nottingham, who is really good about bringing in key people into my world, as far as research and doing innovative things. I know he has had Michael do some presentations at his organization, which is FedEx.

Michael is the Senior Partner and Founder of Box of Crayons, which helps organizations around the world do less “good” work and more “great” work. We’ll look at that distinction about that. Their training programs give time-crunch managers and tools to coach in ten minutes or less. I love that and if you have been listening to that for a while, we want to give key tips that you can do.

He is the author of a number of books, and the first one I saw was the best-selling, Do More Great Work. His book and philanthropic project, End Malaria, collected essays by thought leaders around the topic of great work and through its sale, raised more than $400,000 for Malaria No More. He’s been a popular speaker as well as speaking at such organizations as Google, TD Bank, and is constantly top-ranked at conferences such as HRPA, Evanta Conference Board of Canada. As an Australian, he is surprised to find himself living in Toronto. He is a Rhoads Scholar at Oxford University. His only real success, he said, was falling in love with a Canadian; now his wife for 20 years.

He says in his bio here; as George Orwell said, “an autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.” Bearing that in mind, we’ll ask him a little bit about that. Michael was banned from his high school graduation for the balloon incident. He also left law school being sued by one of his lecturers for defamation. He managed to knock himself unconscious doing a haul as a laborer. So you can see, he has a good sense of humor.

Michael, welcome to the show!

Michael Bungay Stanier: Hi. I’m excited to be here. Though honestly, I think I would prefer to be on a cruise with Cathy, but you are the second best offer that I’ve had today. So I’ll go with that.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Thanks Michael. I think I’d like to be on a cruise with Cathy too. So it said in the intro, that you are from Australia. How did you land in Toronto? Was it meeting your wife?

Michael Bungay Stanier: Yes, it was. I was lucky enough to win a Rhodes Scholarship which took me to Oxford, which was brilliant, but really not for the reasons people think, although it’s a great privilege to be a Rhode Scholar, it did two things. The first is it stopped me from becoming a lawyer. I would have been a very sad and a pretty inadequate lawyer. So that was a great boon, because I finished a law degree in Australia and kind of the momentum of things like that is that you carry on and before you know it you have 10 years into a law career, wanting to kill yourself.

It saved me from that. But the real bonus was when I arrived in Oxford, almost immediately I met my wife, Marcella, and she and I have been a couple now for 25 years, she’s my co-partner in running business. Honestly, if you ever want the greatest test to a relationship it’s to go in and work with your life partner because you find out all sorts of stuff about yourself and about them that you would never find out otherwise.

Dr. Relly Nadler: I’ve been married 26 years, and I think we decided not to go into business together for probably some of the reasons you are in business. But yes, it can be very challenging. So I commend you on that.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Honestly, we got it wrong five times. We probably had five identical conversations where my wife would say something like, “you know what, this is it, I quit.” She was done with it. But, I tell people one of the things that really influenced and changed the way we worked, and this is good not only if you work with somebody, if you work with human beings. The Thinker out there, a guy called Leds McKeown, his website is

He has a really simple, but powerful model about the three roles that play out when you work with people. There is the visionary; that’s the kind of big picture/future oriented, bright and shiny object syndrome, totally unrealistic about how long things actually take once, wants to meddle with everything—that’s me, I’m a visionary.

The operator: that’s the getting stuff done, doesn’t like process, doesn’t like to do this and this, it’s just a waste of time and all that stuff, getting the stuff to happen.

Then there is the processor. That’s the person who kind of needs systems. Needs to dot the I’s and cross the t’s.

They all kind of wind each other up, but they are all needed for a successful organization.

What’s powerful about that is that you discover that the conflict and the dysfunction you have with somebody is less about your personalities and more about the roles you are playing and the fact that those roles always have their own dynamics to play out.

Now when my wife and I working together, and she’s and “O” and I’m a “V”, operator and a visionary, rather than me going Marcella is a crazy woman who has no idea what she is doing and is a disaster being married to her, yet I’m working with her; I now go, oh, she’s and operator and that’s what she wants, I’m a visionary and that’s what I want, and we always run into each other like this. So it calmed us down a lot.

Dr. Relly Nadler: I can see how that is really valuable. One of the tools that I use all of the time is the Myers Briggs, similar to what you are saying. It’s so much easier to say, especially with my wife I’ve learned a lot, oh, she is not doing this to me, this is just her way of being in the world—like you are saying—and I have a different way of being.

So it’s less about the person, it’s more about the role or the style.

Michael Bungay Stanier: You know how in Myers Briggs there are sixteen different combinations of roles you can play? There is lots of research about 12 of them, and then four of the roles have far less research, because they are the people that hate things like Myers Briggs things. They are like, I’m not going to do your stupid survey, I’m just going to carry on doing my own thing.

My wife is one of those four roles. I’m not sure which yet, but she is one of those four. We don’t use Myers Briggs because I can’t get her to think about it like that.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Well, I think in this configuration, like you were saying, I’m definitely the visionary and share something, just because we are talking about this. We just came back from a phenomenal trip to Big Sur which is down below San Francisco. It’s beautiful country and we have a trailer that we were pulling, so it’s new for us. We were out on the river. Because I’m kind of more visionary, not detail oriented, we are 20 minutes from home, it’s a 4 hour drive, and I’m driving and I ran out of gas for the 2nd time in the exact same spot. Twenty minutes from home, we are all thinking about getting something to eat, and my wife says, “how do you not look at the fuel gauge?” Not that this wasn’t the first time, it was the second time.

She was just furious with me. For me, it was I can’t believe I did this again. I mean I could laugh at myself, but we are out there on the side of the road for over an hour waiting to get some gas.

Michael Bungay Stanier: You are buying the dinner that night.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Maybe it’s more than a night too.

Tell us about the balloon incident and then how you got sued by one of your lecturer’s.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Well the balloon incident. I put that in my bio because I find that often when people have these long bios that make you feel both bored and intimated at the same time. So I tried to lighten things up a little bit.

Just like that quote, you are so much more than the list of your achievements. Often, so much is more interesting in terms of where the struggle has been. When we are coaching people and are thinking about helping people expand and fulfill to their potential; there’s that space around—show me your scars, show me where your struggle is, that’s where it is interesting.

The balloon incident: I’m in high school, seventeen or eighteen years old and our headmaster had been a headmaster for 35 years and it was his retirement year. It sounds better as a headliner than a story, I’m just realizing. We weren’t allowed to do anything, because the kids the year before had trashed the place. They put glue in locks, and they put weed killer on the lawn, and they had written rude things that appeared 3 weeks later when all the grass died off, so we were banned from doing anything.

Of course I went, well that is not fun. I’m going to see if we can mix things up a little bit. It was a Christian high school, you know that kind of intense Christian High School and it had a chapel. It had a conical roof. Here’s something that is simple, non-damaging, easy to do. So myself and some friends kind of commando crawled unto the chapel early in the morning, set up the balloons, gas-filled helium balloons; filled up the roof which was beautiful. Then the chaplain comes in or at least we spy him approaching, so we all rush to the back of the chapel where there is a door out the back, which unfortunately was locked. So he came in and found us all clustered together feeling as guilty as guilty can be and it all went downhill from there.

Then in terms of being sued at my law school, again, it’s an interesting story, I think, a little bit about what it means to take a stand. We had a law lecturer who was lecturing us on a topic and the factual example that he was using to make the point of law, was about a woman being raped. That fact which is distressing for all sorts of people, wasn’t required to make the point about the point of law. It was just gratuitous. Myself and some others asked him to remove it. He got into a huff and then before we all knew it—I arrived at Oxford, actually, with $50,000, for being sued by this law lecturer; it made it into the Times Newspaper in London, in a little section. It was all a flurry—a tempest in a teapot, as they say.

What was interesting for me as somebody being trained in law, was to understand a little better about how law is not so much about justice, it’s actually about how power works and who had the power. The system, as you understand it, can be manipulated for the use of power as much as it is for shining justice, or whatever.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So did you get out of that case? You didn’t have to pay.

Michael Bungay Stanier: This is what he did that was brilliant. He sued us. We were all in our final years in law school. We graduated, we went our separate ways, and a year later he dropped the law suit. What that meant is that we couldn’t talk about it or do anything while in law school. He kept his job and he just kind of made the whole thing go away. It was a brilliant, tactical move, even though I didn’t like the man.

Dr. Relly Nadler: It was strategic that way.

Michael, what’s the best way for our listeners to get ahold of you?

Michael Bungay Stanier: For the book it’s and there are a bunch of free resources there, of course. And if they are interested our company, it’s simply

We’ve just gotten started on this fascinating discussion. You can listen to the complete interview, above.


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