Expert Interview Series: Michael Bungay Stanier of Box of Crayons About Manager Coaching

Michael Bungay Stanier is the Senior Partner and Founder of Box of Crayons, a company that gives busy managers the practical tools so they can coach in 10 minutes or less. We recently sat down with Michael to hear his thoughts on how to learn, grow, and succeed as a manager.

What services or product offerings does Box of Crayons provide for its clients?

We’re very focused in what we do. We don’t do leadership. We don’t do consulting. Box of Crayons is a training company that gives busy managers practical tools so they can coach in 10 minutes or less.

If every personal setback or challenge is a life lesson, what have you learned from your own setbacks and challenges?

I’ve definitely had my share of stumbles and fumbles. And if it’s taught me anything, it’s probably:

• “Wisdom enters through the wound.” You get smarter from your failures, but only if you choose to do so. It’s worth asking (win or lose), “What did I just learn here? What do I know now that I didn’t know before?”
• Persistence really does pay off. Being willing to come back and give it another go often trumps talent. For instance, the first time I applied to become a Rhodes Scholar I didn’t even get a first interview. And they said EVERYONE got a first interview. So I spent two years licking my wounds and getting ready to do a better job.
• None of this matters much in the long run. In 10 years, you won’t be worrying about what you’re worrying about now. And in 110 years, no one will remember who you are. So you may as well go big and have some fun.

Your company’s website is heavily focused on “Great Work.” Could you define that term for us?

There’s a simple way of splitting everything you do into three buckets:

• Bad Work: The waste-of-time, life-sucking, heart-sinking work. Too many emails, meetings, bureaucracy
• Good Work: Your job description. Important stuff, but there’s always too much of it, and trying to get it all done keeps you stuck in something of a comfortable rut
• Great Work: Work that has more impact and has more meaning. Impact is important for the business. Meaning matters to the people doing the work.

Most people have too much Bad and Good Work. Our goal is to help people have more Great Work in their lives.

What are some of the common issues and problems that managers come to Box of Crayons with?

There are lots of symptoms: overwhelm, an over-dependent team, a lack of focus, a sense that you’re spinning your wheels, a sense of playing small. In the end (and obviously I’m biased here), I think it comes down to: “Are you finding meaning and creating impact in your work?”

If a manager said to you, “My role is to simply provide the resources to my employees, and then leave them alone to succeed or fail on their own,” how would you respond?

Perhaps I’d channel my inner Dr. Phil and ask them, “How’s that working for you?” Because it’s not that common that you’re lucky enough to have people sufficiently talented and autonomous to thrive like that. And if they’re not thriving, then you’re probably not thriving as their manager. One of the benefits of being a more active manager – being more coach-like with them – is that you help them learn, and in learning they become better able to be autonomous, to move towards mastery, and to do more Great Work.

How important is it for a manager to have superb time management skills?

One of the most important things a manager can master is saying “No” much more than they currently do. It’s the strong “No” that gives any “Yes” its shape and its power.

How has the emergence of video and online tutorials changed the way your company delivers its instruction to its clients?

We’re still mostly an in-classroom training company. But we use video a lot as supplementary material, and we’re trying to figure out how to make our training more virtual without compromising the experience too greatly. There are so many interesting technologies blooming. But it’s important to make sure that they help the learning and the behavior change rather than just to be fancy for fancy’s sake.

Why is it so essential today for managers and businesspeople to constantly update and improve their skills?

I like this quote from Robert Greene (whose books are fantastic, by the way): “The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways.”

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