Michael Bungay Stanier is the Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organisations do less Good Work and more Great Work. Box of Crayons is best known for its coaching programs, which give busy managers practical tools to coach in 10 minutes or less. Michael has written a number of books, the best known of which is Do More Great Work, with almost 100,000 copies sold. He’s proudest of End Malaria, a collection of essays about Great Work by thought leaders that has raised $400,000 for Malaria No More.
His latest book, The Coaching Habit, is already being called a modern classic.
How did you get to your current position?
I did arts and law degrees in Australia before being rescued from an almost-certainly-unhappy career as a lawyer by winning a Rhodes Scholarship and heading off to Oxford to do a master’s in literature. I did finally stagger out of university, and first spent time at an innovation/creativity agency inventing products and services, and delivering training, and then joined a change management consultancy. During this time I moved from Oxford to London to Boston, and then in 2001 to Toronto, where I now live.
It’s in Toronto that I started Box of Crayons, and it’s evolved over time to be a training company with a focus purely on practical coaching skills for busy managers.
Within your career to date, was there a specific action that you believe helped you to become the successful leader that you are today?
I do like the saying “Inspiration is when your past suddenly makes sense.” So, everything’s played its role.
And I’ve had some important breaks, such as: Not becoming a lawyer. Marrying a Canadian, so I didn’t return to Australia. Having my first job be with a company that was trying to be very un-corporate. Deciding to self-publish my first book, and investing a $30k inheritance to make it happen. Getting fired from my job in Canada, so I finally started my own company.
But mostly, thousands of little decisions to tip me toward Great Work — the work that has more impact and more meaning — and away from a more predictable life.
What was the first job you had that entailed managing people and what lessons did you learn?
My first job out of university — at the innovation/creativity agency — involved my managing people. I’m still not that great at it, but early lessons there were the obvious ones: be compassionate, set goals and establish accountability.
I then (as now) tend toward the let-accountability-slip and if-I’m-nice-is-that-enough and let’s-hope-this-awkward-thing-just-goes-away-rather-than-talking-about-it.
Throughout your career could you explain what leadership and management development you have undertaken?
I read a lot… probably a hundred books a year, so there’s that. But much of my learning comes from two areas:
- Having my wife as my business partner, and her willingness to give me ongoing feedback.
- The work I do and teach — how to be an effective manager by being more coach-like — and wanting to practise what I preach.
The most powerful course I’ve taken is Immunity to Change, created by Lisa Lahey and Bob Kegan. It’s a powerful tool to help understand how your hidden commitments can stop you from achieving the personal changes you wish to make.
Is there a leadership or management related book that you would recommend?
Let me give you two:
Both are really powerful and reframe how to best serve and support those you lead and manage.
Have you made any mistakes during your leadership career and importantly how did you recover from them?
Besides my more common errors noted above, you know how they say that walking is just falling over interrupted? I tend to think that’s true about my management style.
It’s as much mistakes corrected as it is anything else.
And conversely, what would you say is your greatest achievement in a leadership role?
Learning how to trust others and give them power and responsibilities, and learning how to move beyond the ‘dump and run’ style of management and abandoning them to their fate.
Did anyone in particular inspire your approach to leadership?
I’ve learned most from managers I thought weren’t particularly good. D— was too vague and didn’t teach me anything, though enthusiastic and upbeat. M— was unpredictable and slightly psychopathic, but ambitious and generous. A— was terrible at communicating or asking for help. C— tended to take her frustrations with the difficult change project we were working on out on her team.
And so I try not to do those things.
When recruiting your team/succession planning, what do you look for in the managers and leaders that work for you?
The Box of Crayons values are:
Create impact. Have fun. Pursue elegance. Tread lightly. Be generous. Stay curious.
So people who are aligned to that matter.
Beyond that, we look for people who are compassionate and care about those with whom they work, who have a sense of autonomy and are willing to try something new, and who are just really good at what they do.
For the people who work with me directly, I look for ‘undauntedness’. Working with any founder can be tricky because we think we’re right, and we often embody the culture of the company. I need people who won’t fall for my BS and will see through my more subtle forms of control.
What would be your top tip to other leaders/managers?
- Never trust anyone else’s advice too much.
- Stay ambitious and nurture the focus, courage and resilience to do more Great Work.
- Stay humble and continue to learn and improve.
- See #1.
The LMW Team would sincerely like to thank Michael Bungay Stanier for this interview.