Transcript of Why Great Leaders Give Advice Less and Listen More
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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing podcast. This is John Jantsch and my guest today is Michael Bungay Stanier. He is the founder and CEO of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations do less good work and more great work. He’s also the author of The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever.
John Jantsch: Welcome, Michael.
Michael Bungay Stanier: Hey, John. We’ve been friends for over a decade now, so I’m stoked to be on the podcast. I love all your books, so thank you for talking about mine. I really appreciate it.
John Jantsch: Well, we will not have a decade go between our next episode, how’s that?
Michael Bungay Stanier: I like that plan.
John Jantsch: So, when I was starting to write the intro, like we do, I did CEO, a Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations do less, and I thought, “Well that doesn’t seem right.” But “do less good work and more great work” makes a ton of sense, but I had to stumble on that a little bit.
So, The Coaching Habit and Lead is also in the subtitle. It’s certainly become very popular, hasn’t it, to talk about leadership being coaching?
Michael Bungay Stanier: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Coaching has been one of those words that’s been around forever and it’s one of those words that everybody’s kind of heard of and kind of knows what we’re talking about, and certainly in organizational life, big company, small company, there’s been people familiar with the whole idea of getting a coach, you know, help me out, get a coach. If I’m leading a small company, it helps me scale and grow and focus and the like.
Our focus at Box of Crayons is to make coaching be seen not as a profession, somebody you can hire, but as a core leadership behavior. It’s a way you show up in the world. And the way we define it, just to make it easier for people, is we say, look, we define it in a really behavioral way, and it’s this: Can you stay curious a little bit longer? Can you rush the action and advice-giving a little bit more slowly?
Because most people we found are advice-giving maniacs. They love it and they default to that as their form of leadership and guidance ’cause they’ve spent their whole life getting rewarded for having the answer and they want to be helpful and they thought, “This is how I be helpful.”
While there’s always a place for advice, for us we’re like, can you just slow down that rush to advice, can you be curious a little bit longer, ask better questions and that’s going to elevate the way that you lead.
John Jantsch: One of the things that struck me in re-reading this … I actually read it sometime ago, and in re-reading it more closely for this interview I sort of got … You know how you when you go back and re-read a book and you go, “That wasn’t in there the last time I read it.”
Michael Bungay Stanier: Totally.
John Jantsch: And the idea that people don’t actually want you to answer their questions, that just floored me ’cause I think I’ve spent my whole life thinking, “Well, if they came and asked me a question and I know the answer, then they want the answer.” And that blew me away.
Michael Bungay Stanier: Yeah, it’s one of those they do and they don’t. Lots of people have trained their bosses to be the person who has the answer, and that’s kind of a comfortable collusion. You know, well it’s a whole lot easier if I just go to that person and go, “Just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it,” because that saves us all a whole lot of trouble and effort later on.
But there’s a price everybody pays in that equation. The boss pays that price because they become the bottleneck and they become overwhelmed and they feel like, “I’m trying to do everybody else’s job as well as my own.” The person who’s asking for the answer pays a price because they don’t get a chance to grow and to learn and to feel like they have autonomy and mastery and purpose. Those are the three drivers that Dan Pink talks about in his book Drive. And the organization, no matter what size, pays a price because you are training people not to think but just to follow orders and follow advice, and it’s not always the best advice.
So there is one part of the people that go, “Sometimes I just want the answer,” and that’s true for everybody, but I think for the people who listen to this podcast, these are people who are going, “Look, I’ve got a sense of autonomy, I’ve got a sense of growth, I want to shape my own life, I want to take responsibility for my own freedom,” and those are people who have a hunger for, “Ask me a question so I can figure some stuff out myself.”
John Jantsch: Well, I’m going to admit to the public listening here that I was one of those people. My team would come and ask me and I would answer questions. Sometimes I would go on eloquently for long, extended periods of time.
Michael Bungay Stanier: For days, for days John would pontificate.
John Jantsch: And then I thought, “Okay, I’m going to try what Michael said,” and so I started having my staff ask me those same questions and I literally just … I don’t think this is actually one of your questions; it’s the spirit of one of your questions. I would just say, “What would you do?”
Michael Bungay Stanier: Nice.
John Jantsch: “What do you think?” And it was amazing. They always had the right answer, and I was like, “Well, you should take on more accountability for doing that, then.”
Michael Bungay Stanier: I love that.
John Jantsch: We do a book club with my staff and we made your book a book club, and so now when somebody asks me a question and I write back, “What would you think?” all I get back is a smiley face.
Michael Bungay Stanier: Yeah, that’s perfect.
John Jantsch: Because-
Michael Bungay Stanier: Part of what I love about this, John, is the genius around … One of the barriers to coaching is people feel like it’s this black box, arcane art where something mysterious happens, and [inaudible 00:06:07] it’s not that difficult. It’s a few good questions, ask them well, stay curious, and what happens in a perfect world is everybody understands what’s happening.
So just as you’re saying, you ask a question, you got a smiley face back which says, “Ah, you’re doing that coaching thing and you know what? That’s actually the right thing to have done.” So, well played, sir. And they figure it out themselves, so that’s perfect.
John Jantsch: Now, another application … We’re talking about this in the context of leadership, which of course it is, but as I read it I was also like, “Hey, that’s a way better way to work with your clients and to sell.” How often do we show up and assume what the client wants or thinks or is doing and tell them what to do without really knowing what’s actually going on?
Michael Bungay Stanier: Honestly, anybody in the world of sales knows that the key problem people have when they sell is they start pushing their stuff too soon. They’re kind of like, “I don’t know what your problem is, but I have the answer for you. Let me tell you all the benefits and this, that and the other of this widget that I’m trying to sell you.”
And you know great sales people are people who are basically great questioners. They’re like, “I’m going to keep asking until I figure out what the real thing is you’re struggling with, and then I’m going to find a way of framing what I’ve got to be the solution to the thing that you’re wrestling with.” So absolutely, these questions …
I mean, I wrote this for people who are managers and leaders, but what I have loved getting is emails from people who are parents and sports coaches and spouses and sales leaders. Basically, if you interact with other human beings, the mantra “you should stay curious a little bit longer, you should rush to action advice-giving a little bit more slowly” is a pretty good mantra. You don’t have to have a direct reporting position with each other.
John Jantsch: Yeah, and it’s almost like … I was talking about a staff member, but in a sales situation it’s almost like you let them sell themselves. You add value by asking questions nobody else is asking them and they ultimately almost come to the conclusion on their own, and that’s so much more powerful than us telling them the solution.
Michael Bungay Stanier: John, the other day … probably 12 months ago, I happened to be in a small group setting with Alan Mulally who was the CEO of Ford and who came into Ford when Ford had lost $12 billion in a year, so a billion dollars a month for 12 months in a row, and the first person brought into lead the Ford company that wasn’t a member of the ford family. So it was an act of desperation by the Ford company.
Mulally has been written up many times as one of these exemplary leaders, and when he talked to us about his style, he said, “You know what? I never, I never gave my opinion on challenges that my team were facing because I knew that even if I had an idea or a thought or opinion that was slightly better than the other one being brought to the table, the benefit of having their own and implemented by the person who came up to it outweighed my idea being slightly better.”
So he basically went through his whole process, which was turning around Ford losing a billion dollars a month, by resisting giving advice and creating a space for his team to figure stuff out for himself, and I was thinking to myself when I heard that, I’m like, “Wow, if ever there was a temptation to go, ‘Let me take control here ’cause I’m on the hook …'”, and I figured if Alan Mulally can do it, then everybody can do it because I don’t think a single person here is currently losing $250 million per week for a year.
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A lot of people will use examples of really big companies. Sometimes small business owners start to say, “Well, they’ve got an executive team, somebody meets with so-and-so.” But I think this is actually more relevant in the small organization because you’ve got five people on your team, if you don’t have everybody working together, everybody being coached, everybody kind of on the same page, I think it’s more devastating than having a rogue division manager that’s not a very good leader.
Michael Bungay Stanier: Well that’s right. I mean, I run a small company. I have 20 people in my team, so we live through this all the time, and I’m the founder, and for the folks who are listening in who are the founders or the leaders of their companies, that temptation to be the person with the answer is so much stronger because, after all, you founded this company, it’s got your name on the plate somewhere, and the temptation for the people on your team to go to you as the person with the answer is strong as well.
But you’ve hired these people because of their brains and what they can bring to your organization, and you know that if you had the opportunity to tap into the full potential of what these people can bring your small business, your small business will flourish. The challenge with being more coach-like …
At Box of Crayons we say we don’t train people to be coaches, we train managers and leaders to be more coach-like, is not just that you’ve got a long-term habit of giving advice and you’re being rewarded and given badges and all that for years, it’s that fundamental [inaudible 00:12:04]. Asking a question is actually giving up control to the other person, because when you’re giving advice, it feels pretty good. You feel smart, you feel like you’re adding value, you feel like you’ve got the high status in the relationship, you feel like you’re the big person in this conversation, and even though your advice isn’t always as good as you think it is and half the time you’re solving the wrong problem, it still feels a pretty comfortable place to be.
But when you ask a question, you have this moment where you’re like, “Okay, was that a good question? Did they understand the question? What happens if they give me an answer that I don’t understand or I do understand but it’s crazy?” Where’s this conversation now going? You’re literally empowering that other person, but behind empowerment is this insight of you giving up power, ’cause I know there’s nobody in this call going, “I’m against empowerment.” I want my team to feel empowered.
But when the rubber hits the road [inaudible 00:13:02] that means you giving up some control. Giving up some power and being more coach-like, asking questions, is one of the most powerful ways of doing that, but you have to sit with the discomfort of going, “I’m allowing this person to take control and I’m playing a bigger game. I’m playing for a future state of success rather than trading that against an immediate sense of control and let me take this on and let me give you my answer.”
John Jantsch: Yeah, and I think that’s a [inaudible 00:13:30]. I’m not saying it’s really counterintuitive, but maybe it feels like that ’cause you said it feels like you’re giving up, but it’s almost like that we’re giving up control for the good of the long-term game.
Michael Bungay Stanier: Yeah, exactly. You’re playing a bigger, smarter game, and that means you’re giving control and power and autonomy and mastery and purpose to those people on your team so you get the most of them, and so they can fully connect to who you are and what your organization’s becoming.
John Jantsch: So we’ve been skirting around some of this, but I probably should let you … The book is really organized around seven questions and the use of these seven questions and when and how and why, so maybe I should let you give kind of a global overview then of … You don’t have to go question by question, but just a global overview of sort of the methodology, I guess.
Michael Bungay Stanier: Yeah. The starting point is to go, let’s make coaching un-weird, because for lots of people, coaching comes with a whole bunch of baggage. Like, “I’ve met life coaches and I don’t want to be a life coach. Executive coaching, I don’t understand that,” or, “I was traumatized by a sports coach who made me do push-ups in the mud.” So it’s like let’s make coaching an un-weird, everyday leadership behavior, and let’s make it as simple and as accessible and as practical as possible.
So after much going back and forth, I came down to seven questions. I went, “Look, if you have seven good questions and you ask them well, you will be more coach-like, you will elevate your leadership.” And the questions are uniformly simple and powerful and challenging. I’ll give you some examples.
There’s the coaching bookend. These are questions number one and number seven in the book, and one of our core principles around coaching, John, is to say, “Look, if you can’t coach somebody in 10 minutes or less, you don’t have time to coach them.” And that means that you’ve got to get into the real conversation fast and you’ve got to finish it strong, and that’s what the coaching bookends are for.
So the opening question or the kickstart question, as it’s called in the book, is simply: What’s on your mind? And we found that what’s on your mind works really well as a question because it is both open … It says to that other person, “Hey, you get to choose,” but it’s also focusing ’cause it says to them, “Don’t tell me everything, don’t give me a report out on everything that you’ve ever thought of in the last week, tell me about what’s important or exciting or worrying or overwhelming for you right now. Let’s go there.” So it’s a way of accelerating [inaudible 00:16:05] real challenge.
And then the closing question or the learning question comes with this insight that one of the most powerful things you can do as a leader is to teach your people, to help them learn, and to do that you have to understand how people actually learn. They don’t learn when you tell them stuff, they don’t learn when they do stuff, they really learn when they have a moment to reflect on what just happened, and this is the learning question and you simply ask: What was most useful or most valuable here for you?
Michael Bungay Stanier: As an example, like, we’re almost done on this podcast. People are going, “John, Michael, they’re a awesome couple, they’re so interesting,” but this podcast becomes more valuable when I ask you, the listener, what was most useful or most valuable here for you? ‘Cause now you’re forced to go back to all the stuff that John and I covered and go, “I’m going to pull out A and B and C as the things that were most useful and most valuable for me”, so now you have to work.
And if you chose to post this on social media in someway, I’d get a chance to see that and go, “Oh, so all the things I talked about, this is what was most useful and valuable for people, so I’ll talk more about that in my next podcast interview.”
John Jantsch: And let’s use that a segue to say, let’s give away a couple of Michael’s book, The Coaching Habit. All I’m going to ask you to do, and these instructions will be in the show notes as well, but I really would like you to listen today and post on Twitter what was most useful for you about this podcast.
Michael Bungay Stanier: Perfect.
John Jantsch: You can just tag me @ducttape. That’s probably the easiest one, and, Michael, you want to share yours. Is yours easy to [crosstalk 00:17:52]
Michael Bungay Stanier: Yeah, sure. My Twitter handle is @boxofcrayons.
John Jantsch: @boxofcrayons. Okay. You had to think about that, didn’t you?
Michael Bungay Stanier: Yeah, I sure did.
John Jantsch: So, what was most useful for you from this interview? Go ahead and tag me @ducttape, and we’ll pick a couple really useful replies and we’re going to contact you and send you a copy of Michael’s book, which I’m holding in my hand here.
I have an admission. So, question number seven I had already made a note to talk about: What was most useful for you? I have started to use this now. I do a lot of strategy sessions with clients and at the end of those I’ve started using that question, and it’s amazing-
Michael Bungay Stanier: Fantastic.
John Jantsch: … it sort of resells them on how much value they got. Rather than me telling them, they sort of state it.
I’ve also gone as far as, not in really big groups but in small groups when I do speaking, asking that at the end of my talk, if it’s a small enough group where we can really engage, and that’s been a lot of fun too because it’s interesting, sometimes, just to hear people’s different perspectives of what they actually got from it and sometimes it’s not exactly what I thought was the most important thing, so it’s been really useful.
Michael Bungay Stanier: Yeah, I love all of that. I do the same. Even when I’m speaking to a big group I’ll go, “What was the most useful and most valuable? Turn to the person next to you and share that with them.” And just as you say, not only does that crystallize it for them, but hearing other people’s kind of, “Well this is what I got out of it,” just resells the value of the experience, so they walk away feeling better because of the time they’ve invested in being with you and, of course, that serves your reputation as well.
John Jantsch: Right, I want to drill into another one. Number four, the foundation question: What the hell do you want anyway?
Michael Bungay Stanier: Exactly. What do you want? You put it in a kind of nice blunt way, but I almost call this the goldfish question because when you ask somebody, “So what do you want?” they often get that kind of goldfish look on their face. Their eyes pop open and their mouth makes that kind of guppy, guppy kind of sound or that expression.
I love this question, and for me this is the hardest question to wrestle with but really fundamental because when things are confusing or you feel you’re discombobulated or knocked off your game or you’re not sure what’s happened or you’re kind of emotionally riled up someway, you know, angry or frustrated or sad, whatever it might be, it’s a really powerful question to ask yourself, what do I want right now? It’s a very powerful way of grounding yourself in the moment to go, “All right, I’m feeling out of sorts, I’m a bit lost, I’m feeling off balance, what do I want?”
What you find is finding that within you allows you to get clearer on what your goal is, which makes it really clear what the next step for you to take is. But it’s also really powerful in a coaching conversation ’cause when you have a conversation with somebody and they’re talking about whatever the challenge might be and you tend to go, “So, I get all of that, and what do you want? What do you really want?” you’ll have that question land with power. There’ll be a silence as they wrestle with it. Once they see what they want, the doors of possibilities open up, and one of the challenges …
You know, on a sidetrack, I’m just thinking about why people don’t give feedback and why feedback is so difficult and tricky for people and they go, “Oh, I don’t want to get into these emotional conversations.” But I actually think, John, that quite often it’s because you haven’t got clear on what you want. When you know what you want, you know what you want to ask for, you know what outcome you’re going for, and it kind of just makes the next steps that much more purposeful.
John Jantsch: Yeah, and I think that, in some cases, especially in a leader/subordinate type of role, I think you’re really giving somebody permission to stop beating around the bush, because a lot of times it’s just, “Can I say this, can I not say this? I’m talking in circles,” and it’s kind of like, “Wait a minute. What do you really want?”
Michael Bungay Stanier: Exactly.
John Jantsch: I think it gives permission, I think.
Michael Bungay Stanier: I love that. Yeah, I agree.
John Jantsch: Okay, so when I read through the list of questions … we’re not going to cover anymore, you’re just going to have to pick up a copy of the The Coaching Habit so that you can own all seven of these. How do you sometimes …? I mean, I think I could see the temptation to deliver these a little bit in a mechanical way. It’s like, “Oh, Michael said my third question should be blah blah blah,” and it doesn’t really come off as sincere or maybe even appropriate in the situation.
Michael Bungay Stanier: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. If you’re just using this as a kind of mechanical process to drill people through, it’s not going to do your relationship with that other person as much good as it might.
When we teach our programs around coaching skills for managers and leaders and we go, “Well what do we even mean by the word coaching?” Often we’ll get people to pair up, tell them about a time when they were well coached and then distill from that experience what are the attributes of good coaching? And it turns out that it’s not very technical at all, it’s, “They were curious. They had my back. I felt it was a safe spot and I felt they cared about me.” That’s what it boils down to.
Built into all of this, ’cause every tool can be used badly, but built into all of this is the assumption of, coaching [inaudible 00:23:24] be powerful, you showing up to be more coach-like will be powerful if you are genuinely interested in that other person, if you genuinely want the best for them, if you genuinely want them to help figure out the next step.
If you’re bored and you’re doing your email and you’re kind of looking out the window and you’re like, “Yeah, whatever.” What is the real challenge for you? It’s going to be so-so. But if you’re actually interested and kind of commit to caring for that person, then it’s going to be that much more powerful.
In between the seven questions in the book are just really short kind of little take away chapters about how to ask a question well, and one of them is, like, actually care about the question.
John Jantsch: Absolutely. You have a lot of resources at thecoachinghabit.com, so you want to invite people to find inside the book videos and all kinds of good stuff.
Michael Bungay Stanier: Yep. I love that John said go out and get the book, and of course I would love you to do that as well, but if you’re like, “I’m not sure yet. He hasn’t quite sold me,” go to thecoachinghabit.com and pillage it. You can download the first, I think, three chapters, there’s a lot of videos and podcasts that we kind of connect to from the book, so they’ve got kind of context in the book, there’s a couple of download papers that you can get there and have it [inaudible 00:24:40] in particular, so there’s just a ton of resources there. So if you’re not up for the book, definitely go to the website and check that out.
John Jantsch: People can also find more about Michael at boxofcrayons.com, but obviously you can find that from thecoachinghabit.com as well, and we’ll have all this great info in the show notes. Michael, thanks for joining us and hopefully we’ll see you someday soon after on the road.
Michael Bungay Stanier: That’s sounds great, John. It’s a pleasure. Thanks.