Every health system leader has unprecedented executive management challenges facing their organization in the wake of the pandemic. The Baldrige Foundation and the ABOUT Healthcare welcome you to LeaderDialogue Radio, where leaders glean valuable insights and practical takeaways to help navigate effectively through these challenging times. The show airs on the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays of every month at 1:00 pm (ET) on Business RadioX.
Michael Bungay Stanier (aka MBS), a Rhodes Scholar and author of multiple books including “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, and Change the Way You Lead Forever”, will be joining Leader Dialogue co-hosts Dr. Roger Spoelman and Ben Sawyer. They will a closer look at best coaching practices as leaders deal with workforce disruptions and staff burnout in the aftermath of the pandemic. Today, Michael Bungay Stanier shares his perspective and insights on achieving systemness and provides practical suggestions that can be applied immediately.
Listen to the podcast here
Achieving Systemness: Coaching Opportunities
I have my colleague and friend, Ben Sawyer, who’s an Executive with ABOUT Healthcare and he is going to join me in this great discussion we’re going to have so welcome, Ben.
Thank you, Roger.
You and I both had the privilege of working with many great leaders throughout our careers. If you ever ask any great leader and scratch deep enough from the surface, you’re going to find them and see who had an impact on your life. You’re going to find a teacher or a coach. Has that been your experience as well? Anybody in your life that stands out?
There have been several and the characteristics of each are that they were willing to take the time to listen, learn and understand. One of the most significant experiences I had was reaching out to see Everett Koop during the initial Bill Clinton healthcare transformation. He took the call and agreed to meet with us for about three hours.
We went and talked to him about healthcare transformation and some of the things we’re working on. He was very gracious with his time. He listened well. He provided good recommendations and followed up. You don’t just expect somebody of that stature, as a Surgeon General of the United States, to do that but he did because of the kind of leader he was.
I’ve had similar experiences. I’ve been blessed and fortunate to have been mentored and coached, not only as a student. I was involved in athletics and I love what I learned from some of my coaches and teachers but then, later in life, I’ve been coached and mentored by people, many of whom I’ve never met before. This episode’s guest, I’m so excited that I did reach out like you reached out to see Everett Koop.
I reached out to this episode’s guests and set a cold call. He was so gracious to return my call. He’s with us and I am delighted to introduce, Michael Bungay Stanier. Michael, I’ve heard him on several podcasts. I have read his book, The Coaching Habit, which we’re going to get into a little bit. Michael is Australian but he’s a Canadian now living in Canada. Some of my best friends and bike-riding friends are Canadians here in California. I love my Canadian friends. They are so kind and generous. That’s Michael and he’s also a lawyer and a Rhodes Scholar but he’s got a wonderful sense of humor and great stories. He’s an entrepreneur, coach and author.
When I say author, his book, The Coaching Habit, has sold a little more than one million copies. That’s an incredible feat. He has a company called Box of Crayons, which he’s successfully stepped away from. It’s in Toronto. He’s still the Owner but he’s transferred the day-to-day responsibility to a trusted colleague, which is a great story. Michael, thank you so much for speaking with us.
I’m very happy to be here. I will say one minor correction. You said I was a lawyer. I do have a Law degree. I finished my law degree being sued for defamation by one of my law professors so it wasn’t going well. I had a break that meant that I didn’t follow the legal career path. I would have been a terrible lawyer. I’ve been awful. I survived a Law degree. It is a better way of putting it.
Thanks for that correction. That is a great story. I haven’t heard that. It speaks to your sense of humor. There is one thing that I want to get into about taking your work seriously but yourself, not seriously. We want to talk about some things. Most of our audience is concerned about self-improvement.
There are a lot of Baldrige folks here. They’re concerned about continuous improvement for their companies and this whole notion of coaching. Let’s start with that. You were talking to Brené Brown and got coaching with her. You’re referencing that with Carey Nieuwhof. You admire people who take their work seriously but not themselves.
I have to do that because if you saw what was going on in my head, you would not be able to take yourself seriously. There’s a way of showing up with a lightness to who you are in this world. It’s a weird combination of confidence and humility. That can be a powerful stance as a leader. Confidence around, “I’m good at who I am, what I do and what I know,” and humility of, “I’m deeply flawed and I’ve got all these things I don’t know, mistakes I make and patterns that I’m in.”
If you can hold both of those together, it sets you up. Humility is such an interesting word. The root origin of it comes from the same root word that it gives us humus, meaning ground. With humility, meaning you’ve got your feet on the ground. You see yourself for the best of who you are and also the flaws of who you are. That makes you the messy, wonderful person you are. That allows you then to say, “I can see for myself for who I am and be committed to doing the very best in the work that I try and do.”
It brought to mind some people get paralyzed by the “who I am” part of it. They fall into Imposter syndrome.
They should feel a degree of Impostor syndrome because the interesting stuff is the stuff that’s on the edge of your competence, confidence, sense of experience and skills. You’re like, “This is interesting. I don’t know how to do any of this. Nobody asked me what I’m doing. I’m making it all up.” People go, “Imposter syndrome is a bad thing.” Impostor syndrome means that you’ve taken on something daunting and you’ve committed to learning and growth. That’s to be celebrated as much and be managed at the same time.You don't need to be a coach, but if you can be a more coach-like leader, that is an extremely powerful and underutilized leadership skill. Click To Tweet
I love that balance that you mentioned, balancing confidence and curiosity. When I left healthcare as a full-time occupation, I do get a lot of vestigial hangovers and coaching. It’s this balance between courage and confidence and curiosity and humility. That’s been such a helpful concept to bring people through to get to see that into in their lives. It’s okay to be courageous. Your followers want you to be courageous but they want you to also be curious.
An interesting experience I’ve had is I added in my signature in my email the line, “You’re awesome and doing great.” It’s my standard signature. The first-time people get it, they’ll often write back to me going, “Thank you. I appreciated being seen, encouraged and supported.” The second time, they realize it’s my email signature and they’re a bit disappointed. On the third time, they’re like, “It still makes me feel good.” There’s this recognition that one of the things you can do as a leader is to have that as an attunement, which is, “Fundamentally, you’re awesome and doing great.” How do we deal with what’s going on?
It had the desired effect on me. I sent your email to Ben saying, “Look at this.”
You are awesome and doing great.
Thank you. You are too. I’ve written a couple of books that are trash. They were rubbish so I know how difficult it is. I enjoy writing but it’s difficult. It’s much easier to write a very difficult book or a long book than it is to write a short one. Could you talk a little bit about that challenge?
The way I think about it is twofold. I think to myself while I’m writing a book, “What’s the shortest book I can write that would still be useful?” I’m trying to be patient-centered if you want to use a medical term around this. What is it like to come to a book and decide whether you want it or not? I imagine a person showing up at an airport. She’s a busy senior leader, probably a mid-level leader in her organization.
She’s doing the best she can with her team but she’s exhausted. They’re exhausted and tapped out. She doesn’t quite know how to take the next step toward being a more effective leader. She scans the books. She picks this one up and flips through it. It’s spacious with a short design to it. She thinks to herself, “I could probably read most of this on the flight and fit it into my purse.”
I thought about all of that as I was designing this book. I self-published it so I had some control over the look and the feel of things. There’s that one principle, which is, “What’s the shortest book I can write that would be most useful?” There’s that wonderful quote from one of the supreme court justices who said, “I don’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity but I would give everything for simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
One of the things that I am good at and I try to stay good at is to keep working on information until it has clarity, practicality and usefulness of it. The essence of The Coaching Habit is to unweird coaching because coaching comes with a whole bunch of baggage. You might go, “I’ve met some life coaches and they’re all a bit too woo-woo for me. I was scarred by a sporting coach who made me do push-ups in the mud.” You may go, “I’m a medical professional. I’m a physician. I’m a surgeon. I don’t have time for that stuff. I’ve got a job to do. I want to be a coach. I want to be a CEO. I want to be an MD,” or whatever it might be.
I’m trying to say, “You don’t need to be a coach but if you can be a leader who is more coach-like that is an extremely powerful and underutilized leadership skill.” Here is the simple but difficult behavior around being more coach-like, “Can you stay curious a little bit longer? Can you rush to action and advice-giving a little bit more slowly?”
It’s one of the known things about doctors. There’s research about this, which I even mentioned in the book. There was a study that said, on average, GPs interrupt their patient after seventeen seconds. I read that and went, “That’s a bit unfair for GPs because they’re just humans.” Humans interrupt people after about seventeen seconds.
As a leader, if you understand that one of the most powerful things you can do not just for the other person but for yourself, become good at helping them figure out what the problem was or is, rather than think that you’re there because of the answers that you have, it shifts how you see yourself and contribute to your organization, team and the people that you lead. It also means that you work slightly less hard. At this stage, everyone is going, “Can I do less work?” One of the ways you do less work is to stay curious a little bit longer.
I’m thinking of colleagues and myself when you were talking about making it up. You get this Imposter syndrome. I was a CEO very early in my life. I would go to meetings with these seasoned executives who had all been doing this for years. I was terrified. I’d say, “I’m the only one in this room who doesn’t know what’s going on. I don’t get it.” You stay in the business long enough, Every once in a while, you catch yourself saying, looking around, “Am I the only one who understands what’s going on?”
Acknowledge that they’ve had a lifetime’s practice of being rewarded for having the answer and having done some work in the healthcare profession, particularly in healthcare. If you’re a medical professional, you’ve spent years being tested for knowledge like, “Do you know your stuff? Do you have the answers?” That’s a key metric of success. It’s worth recognizing and appreciating that we’ve had a lot of practice. Being the person with the answer and a lot of encouragement to say, “Here’s how you get the star, the A, the status, the authority, the recognition, the reward and the little shot of dopamine from having that advice.” Stop there.One of the truths about powerful organizations is when responsibility and accountability sit at the level they should within that organization. Click To Tweet
It’s worth understanding the prizes and punishments of being the person who always has the answer. It turns out that often the prizes of being the person with the answer are a bit more short-term. The price that gets paid, the punishments for you and by others, for you always being the person giving the answer have a longer-term effect.
The prizes you get from always being the person with the answers, you get some of that short-term hit of status, authority and dopamine like, “I feel good. I may be getting old but I’m still adding value. I’m still a wise person. I still got it.” It’s also like, “Look at me, I’m trying to be helpful to this person and make their life easier for them. I’m still in control. I still got a tight grip on what’s going on there.”
If you’re always the person who has the answer, you’re always taking the oxygen to say, “Let me tell you what the final answer is here.” There’s a foundational message getting through to the other person which is, “You’re not smart enough, good enough, clever enough, fast enough or experienced enough to figure this out or have the answer.”
It’s a way that is constantly setting up you’re-not-quite-good-enough-yet dynamic. It’s diminishing and disempowering for the other person. It’s not just that because that has a consequence but also, that then means that your organization is full of people who’ve had a message to say, “You’re not yet ready to step up.”
One of the truths about powerful organizations is responsibility and accountability sit at the level they should within that organization. If you’re the advice-giving type, what that means is responsibility and accountability tend to be moving up the hierarchy. You get bottlenecked at the top. That’s the final price that gets paid, which is exhausting, trying to be the person with the answers.
For most of us, the older we get, the more we realize how little we know and how outdated our answers are. The only stuff that we do know, people can look up on Google much faster than you could say it anyway. There’s also a way that you become your bottleneck. You become frustrated with your team. You get drained by the amount that’s being asked of you by everybody. Everybody’s trained you to be the person who has to give them the answers. There’s a real consequence to everybody here, which you, the other person and the organization pay a price for the fact that you can’t stay curious a little bit longer.
Thank you for that. That’s a great answer and advice. It is a rip off though that some people are susceptible to. As leaders, we get pushed into that mode and forced into a place where we don’t belong and we’re not going to perform at our best. We’re going to be forced to give an answer that might be pretty bad but it’s an answer. Andy Stanley, who I admire greatly, says something to the effect, “Leaders who don’t ask questions or opinions of their followers soon find themselves surrounded by people who have nothing to say.” That’s a lonely place.
It’s worth talking to people about, “Why are you resisting this?” You’ve got us banging the drum and waving the flag about curiosity. We’re already converted. If you’re reading this going, “You don’t understand,” you’re right. I probably don’t fully understand. It’s worth saying that staying curious longer doesn’t mean never giving an answer or advice or moving into some weird thing where all you do is ask questions. It means staying curious a little bit longer like 1 minute or 2. Let’s start small in terms of building this habit.
This is a tactic that can be reassuring so you don’t feel like they’re going to leave without ever having heard your good advice or leave with a terrible idea that they’ve come up with that you can’t somehow correct. If somebody comes to you and goes, “Michael, how do I?” As soon as the how-do-I comes up, your advice monster shows up and you have to tell them. They’ve asked you. You’d be letting yourself down and letting them down if you didn’t give them an answer. Tell your advice monster, “Calm down. Stay curious a little bit longer.”
Here’s the script. Medical professionals love a good script. “I’ve got an answer for you which I’ll share. Before I tell you what I think, let me ask you. What’s your first thought on this?” They will always have an idea. They’re not coming to you going, “I have not a single thought on how I might tackle this.” Ask that question and then be quiet. No need to say any more than that. Whatever they say, nod your head. Be encouraging and say, “That’s interesting.”
If somebody comes up with a ludicrous response, my response to it is, “Maybe.” I’m nodding my head. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. What I want is them to keep thinking because I’m making them smarter, which means I’m making us smarter by them thinking. I then might go, “What else could you do?” I’m using the and-what-else question, which is one of the best coaching questions. It recognizes that the first answer is never their only answer. It’s rarely their best answer.
You then go, “I like it. Maybe. What else could you do here?” They’ll come up with something else to their surprise and then you go, “This is great. Is there anything else?” Suddenly, they’ll come up with 2 or 3 things. You’ve made them smarter because they’ve been figuring stuff out and saying stuff out loud. You’ve been encouraging that so you’re shifting how power works.
Here’s what’s also great. Now, you know what they know. It means that when you do offer up an idea, a solution or an opinion, you’re not being redundant by repeating something that they’ve already figured out. You’re saying, “This is great. I like everything you’ve said. I’ve got one additional thought that might be helpful for you.” You get to offer up your solution.
You’re also doing it in a way that disrupts the hierarchy a little bit because your answer isn’t the word of God from up high saying, “Here’s the answer. I’ve carved it out on a stone tablet for you.” You’re just going, “I’m adding one thing to the mix that you’ve already created. You can go sort it out. Out of all those ideas, which feels most useful or valuable for you?” You’re still getting answers. You’re still getting it done quickly but you’re doing it in a way that starts shifting responsibility to that other person to figure it out.Curiosity has a way of feeding those two strands of the DNA of a strong organization. Click To Tweet
You mentioned the Brené Brown podcast. If people want to hear what this sounds like in real-time, for five minutes or so on her podcast, at about the 45-minute mark, I coached Brené, which was intimidating because I didn’t know she was going to make me do that. You’ll hear me holding the space and asking you a few questions, the ones I’ve repeated. You’ll see how much progress we make in a short time.
I’ve listened to that. There’s an uncomfortable amount of silence. As leaders, we are uncomfortable with silence because it makes us look like we don’t know what’s going on.
It makes your little brain go, “What’s happening here?” Your amygdala is freaking out and your unconscious brain. You and everybody get a bit uncomfortable with silence.
For the skeptics who are reading this and are living in a tumultuous world that has been set by COVID at a pace they never were comfortable with, they’re seeing people leaving their organization and patients not getting necessarily what they need, to have this advice seems counterintuitive to them like, “That’s great. You’re an author. You’ve got plenty of time. I’m a busy executive trying to run an organization with 15,000 people and frankly, I’m putting out fires.” How is this relevant?
Staying curious a little bit longer isn’t going to fix the exhaustion in the healthcare system. I wish it could because we’ve got the same up in Canada where people leaving healthcare in droves. People tapped out. It is a very hard time to be working in that system. One of the things that people have an assumption about curiosity is it takes a whole lot of time for not much value-add.
One of the ways you can reframe this is to say, “Staying curious a little bit longer doesn’t take a whole lot extra time.” It’s not additive to what you’re currently doing. It’s transformative of what you currently do. It’s the same conversations but you’re just going to stay curious a little bit longer. One of the most powerful questions in the book, which I call the focus question, is to ask, “What’s the real challenge here for you?”
In the medical system, it’s famously run by triage. You’re trying to figure out what’s most important. You got some deep domain expertise around that. Often, the presenting challenge is not the real challenge. If you can stay curious a little bit longer rather than putting out the fire going, “There’s a fire. The right thing to do is putting it out,” if you go, “What’s the real challenge here for you,” discover that you got to turn off the gas valve rather than put out the fire.
That moment of staying curious and helping other people figure out, “What’s the real challenge here for you,” gives you a chance to be slightly more effective and efficient in terms of the work that you do. As a senior leader, in particular, you’re forced to make the hardest choices. Those choices are, “What are we going to say yes to? What must we say no to?”
It always feels in every profession but in medical, even more. We need to say yes to everything and you can’t. You have that difficult responsibility to go, “We’re going to say yes to this.” If you’re going to say yes to this, it behooves you to go, “What’s the real challenge? Do we know what we’re saying yes to so we can know what we’re saying no to?”
Trying to represent the potential skeptic reader, what you’re coaching is that it’s more efficient and effective to do this than the traditional way because if the problem and its root cause aren’t understood and dealt with, it’s going to come back and haunt you. If you can take a minute to press and understand what the source issue is, the knowledge level of the people there and the good ideas that they have on the frontline, which is where most of the knowledge resides, you end up saving a lot of time and building much greater goodwill, which is my takeaway from what you’re saying.
You’re doing three things. You’re spending time figuring out what the real problem is. Curiosity helps do that. You’re finding time to bring out the best solutions to that real problem. Curiosity does that. You’re inviting people forward to be the best version of themselves and take the responsibility that’s appropriate for them in their role. As a senior leader, you’re responsible for two things, strategy and culture. Strategy is, “What’s the real problem? What are our best solutions?” Culture is, “How do we bring out the best of our people?” Curiosity has a way of feeding those two strands of the DNA of a strong organization.
Michael, thank you so much for doing this work. Your new book, How to Begin, I haven’t been able to get into it yet myself but I’m going to get into it. Your books are extremely practical and pragmatic. I encourage our readers to get The Coaching Habit and work on making the culture of your organization and your leadership more coach-like. Michael, how do people get in touch with you so they learn more about your work?
We are grateful that there are lots of podcasts. We hope that you got some creative solutions. Thanks so much for reading. Thank you again to our guests. We’ll see you next time.
- ABOUT Healthcare
- The Coaching Habit
- Box of Crayons
- Brene Brown Podcast – Past Episode – Michael Bungay Stanier Interview
- How to Begin
About Michael Bungay Stanier
I’ve written books that have sold about a million copies all told, including The Coaching Habit, a self-published book that’s become the best-selling book on coaching this century. I founded a training and development company, Box of Crayons, that has taught coaching skills to hundreds of thousands of people around the world. I love that it’s a human-centered place to work, and that it practices what it preaches.
But wait! There’s more! I’ve been happily married for 30 years or so; I was a Rhodes Scholar; I’ve created a book in partnership with Seth Godin that raised $400,000 for Malaria No More; I’ve been named #1 Thought Leader in Coaching and a Coaching Guru; I’ve launched several podcasts; I’ve spoken live and virtually to crowds of thousands…