On Coaching – With Wit & Humor

Business books are usually serious, grounded in wisdom, data, and an unshakeable faith that reading to learn will facilitate improvement. We don’t read business books for pleasure; we read them for action. As a literary form, they are inherently earnest.

It’s the outlier that often defines the norm.

The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever is sincere, intentional about change, and wise. It’s also laugh out loud funny. I have tremendous respect for the author, Michael Bungay Stanier. He self-published this book and it has gone on to sell more than a million copies, helping to grow Stanier’s consulting business – Box of Crayons. MBS (as he refers to himself – joking that he has no relationship to Saudi royalty) has successfully become a major figure in coaching and organizational transformation. He has done it, too, with a unique and accessible style and format. Books are only one part of the business. Stanier also has videos, podcasts, TED talks and more.

The Coaching Habit starts with some basic self-evident truths: we all know that coaching is important and a key component in leadership. Nonetheless, few of us do it regularly and most don’t know how to coach. We don’t even know if we are successful. From these assumptions – and they’re good assumptions – Stanier poses basic seven basic questions and walks us through a process that builds a habit of coaching. It’s brilliantly simple. The brilliance, too, is that simple and direct is often extraordinarily difficult to achieve.

Absolutely essential to the process and Stanier’s thinking is that coaching – and by extension, effective leadership – is about asking questions. It’s a bold premise. Stanier does not go into any detail about all the factors that have to contribute to a working environment that enables question-making. That sort of broader exploration is not part of this short volume. But bypass that and what remains are very good questions, great strategies to ponder, and some outstanding scenarios to consider their use.

Good coaching is grounded in asking the right question at the right time – and listening very closely. Stanier is clear, too, about the difference between real questions, which are about learning, and fake questions, which are about telling or suggesting. The book challenges us to be authentic in our interactions and to do so with fidelity. To make this change we have to retrain ourselves and our communication, building new habits. It’s not easy. I recognize the value of the questions, of the approach – but I have not been able to incorporate them into my day-to-day. It’s fascinating and something that I plan to work on in the coming months.

What truly sets Stanier apart – and will keep me returning to this book – is the quality and humor of the prose. Stanier is extremely funny, blunt without being coarse, and wise with a great sense of humor. He reframes common problems and situations, gives them clever spins, and sets us thinking about how to tackle them with a different mindset. He’s well read, with great references from a wide range of authors throughout, but his prose is not pedantic. His insights about the recurring tropes of modern work are worthy of being embroidered on samplers. I, too, would like to ban “I’m good busy.” I agree that backstories are irrelevant if something is going to be fixed. I concur that strategy is not found in a powerpoint presentation. And there are many more. Even his cultural references are solid.

And what else?

That’s one of the questions featured in the book. As Stainer coaches, if you’re going to make a suggestion, do it clearly. Accordingly: I suggest that if you’re in the market for an enjoyable and provocative business/leadership read, you try The Coaching Habit.

David Potash

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