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E215 | From Coaching Habit to How to Begin with Michael Bungay Stanier

Do you want to be a force for change in the world? Of course you do, but how to begin? That’s actually the title of Michael Bungay Stanier’s latest book – How To Begin, a book written to help people be ambitious for themselves, for the world, to help them find their Worthy Goal, and start something thrilling, important, and daunting.

Best known for writing The Coaching Habit, a best selling coaching book that’s sold over 1.2 million copies world wide, Michael is back on Mind Your F**king Business Podcast once more to talk about how you can figure out what that thing is you want to do, and then how you stop procrastinating so you can go and have an impact. 

Having handed over the reins of Box of Crayons, a learning and development company, Michael has had to find his own worthy goal, and in this episode he shares how he stepped away from Box of Crayons, how to find your purpose, and the key elements of what makes a worthy goal. 

To hear all this and more, download and listen today.

On today’s podcast:

  • How to Begin
  • Stepping away from Box of Crayons
  • Finding your purpose
  • The key elements of a worthy goal
  • The Care Matrix


How to Begin with Michael Bungay Stanier

Michael Bungay Stanier helps people be a force for change. He’s best known for his book The Coaching Habit which has sold over one million copies and has thousands of 5-star reviews online. His latest book How to Begin helps people be ambitious for themselves, for the world, to find their Worthy Goal, and start something thrilling, important, and daunting.

He founded Box of Crayons, a learning and development company that helps organisations move from advice-driven to curiosity-led. They’ve trained hundreds of thousands of managers to be more coach-like, and their clients range from Microsoft to Salesforce to Gucci.

Having cut his teeth in the world of new product development, Michael learned what it means to be customer led. Then, moving into the world of coaching and teaching coaching, Michael learned that he didn’t love coaching per se, but he did like teaching people how to be coaches. 

“I had a belief that coaching was a really powerful leadership, managerial skill. I had a point of view around how it could be different, which is you’ve got to make it accessible and useful and unweird for normal people who are managers and leaders, not for woowoo people who are inclined to be coaches.”

How to Begin

How to Begin evolved from an idea in a previous book Michael wrote, where he explored how individuals can do more work that has impact and meaning, and less of the other stuff. 

“There was one phrase that I really liked, and it was this: we unlock our greatness by working on the hard things. And what I liked about that was it was about unlocking greatness, which is a core theme to what I’m trying to do.”

Unlocking greatness means how do you bring out the best in yourself and others? How do you bring about the necessary behaviour change to step into the next best version of who you are, and take on the hard things that are going to make our world a better place? 

“Whether you’re playing at the scale of your family, or your neighbourhood, or your team, or your organisation, or your community, or your country or your world. The world is amazing, but also in a bit of trouble right now. So how do you get more people thinking: how do I give more rather than take from the world?” 

Stepping away from Box of Crayons

Not meaning to found a multi-million dollar company, Michael quickly realised that he didn’t in fact like running one either, and he wasn’t cut out to be a CEO.

“I am built to be a really good teacher. I’m really good at taking ideas and presenting them in a way that feels new and fresh and accessible, and unweird and doable for people. If I think about the work I’m looking to create, it’s putting ideas into the world. It’s not running a company. Leave that for somebody who knows how to run a company.”

So he handed the company over to Shannon to run. And part of the transition process was making sure that Shannon feels like she’s running her own company, that she’s not simply a caretaker for his company. 

And to do that, they use the tree metaphor model from Susan Scott’s book – Fierce Conversations. This metaphor has four key component parts: roots, trunk, branch, and twigs. 

  1. Twig decisions, says Michael, are things – decisions and goings – that he’s never going to hear or know about, of which there are lots. 
  2. Branches are things that are important enough that he’ll find out about them in an update email from Shannon, or a newsletter, or even at board meetings. 
  3. Trunk decisions, of which there aren’t many, are conversations that are Shannon’s to make. However, she will talk them through with Michael before she makes them. E.g. the big strategic stuff such as reorienting key policies. 
  4. Root decisions are the ones that Michael gets to make. And turns out, says Michael, there are only two decisions he’s allowed to make about Box of Crayons: One – should he fire Shannon or not? Two – should he sell the company or not? 

Finding your purpose

The four biggest insights Michael has around discovering your purpose are actually around goal setting. 

And these are:

  1. The first insight is to understand that the best goals create a tension between thrilling e.g. what lights you up, what gives more to the world than it takes, and daunting e.g. what helps you learn, grow and stretch. And if you can optimise whatever it is for you, for example, what’s really important and daunting, you’re going to have a very powerful goal. 
  2. The second key insight is, the first time you write down a goal, that’s not the actual goal. That’s just a crappy first draft. But it’s a really good place to start. The process of iterating and fine tuning and tinkering with your goal creates a compelling goal that’s going to make it more likely that you find something that matters to you. 
  3. The third insight is you’re going to actually have to commit to doing this. And that’s not just going through with a pretty idea. It’s actually understanding that if you say yes to this, you’re going to have to say no to some other things you’re currently doing. You’re going to have to disrupt some of the expectations of yourself and some of the expectations other people have of you.
  4. The fourth insight is not straightforward. But once you get going it’s not like typing a destination into Google Maps, says Michael, it’s more like navigating through unknown terrain without a map. You have to move slowly, you have to keep stopping and reorienting, you’ll get to dead ends and you’ll have to go back and figure stuff out. This is not a clean cut, clear, linear journey. It’s an exploration into the unknown. 

The key elements of a worthy goal

“One of the deeper dives in the book is to say that a worthy goal will often have a weight on one of three different things, i.e. they have a weight on a project and the work that needs to be done.”

One element that’s part of a worthy goal, says Michael, is that you might want to put an emphasis on the nature of a relationship that you’ve got. For example, I want to be a better leader, or father or son. The focus is on that other person and trying to reorient and redesign and redefine that relationship.

Another thing to think about with worthy goals is probably the deepest element, says Michael, and it’s thinking about your own patterns of behaviour. In other words, who are you and how are you showing up? And how do you shift some of the ways that you’re showing up currently to make room for your worthy goal that you’re trying to achieve?

The Care Matrix

To make what you’re doing at work more efficient for everyone, Michael has created a simple model he teaches called The Care Matrix. It’s a two by two matrix – a box with a cross through the middle of it, creating four squares. Along the bottom is the phrase, ‘I Care’ with arrows pointing high and low. And then the vertical axis is ‘They Care’, and again arrows pointing high and low. ‘They’ are your boss. Or even better, your boss’s boss. 

You use this matrix to identify and classify the work that you’re currently doing. The more work you have in the I Care/They Care top right box, the more engaged you’ll be in your work and the more your boss will be pleased. The question to ask yourself is, with the work you have in the ‘I don’t care/They don’t care’ bottom left box, how do you stop doing it, or pass it to someone else to do?

“You’re probably over delivering against the required standard. And can you delegate it? Can you shrink it? It’s all about going – it has to get done, but it doesn’t necessarily have to get done by me. But I’m responsible to have this thing completed. So how do I do this in the most efficient way possible?”

One of the great underestimated forces of change, says Michael, is stopping stuff. As human beings we’re hardwired to start something and to add to it. But research by Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow says, knowing how to hit the brake is actually the most powerful force of change. And when we’re required to stop, most of us hit the accelerator instead. 

And that’s a really key thing: if we want to be different – what do we stop doing? 

Book recommendations 

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