Coaching Leadership

Chatting Coaching with Michael Bungay Stanier

Every now and then I come across a book that has a significant impact on me. In this case, the book in question is The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier.

The Coaching Habit has sold over 400,000 copies and is a Wall Street Journal Best-Seller. This book has informed much of the work my team and I at Cut Through have done over the past 18-24 months, so when I thought who would make a great person to chat to for my semi-regular spot on The TER Podcast, I asked Michael and he very generously agreed.

In what was a wide-ranging conversation involving gauntlets, sheep-shearing and trying to get kids to eat spinach, we explored how and why leaders could be more coach like. 

You can listen to our chat here. 

Coaching Engagement & Motivation Mindset

The Curious Case of Nick Kyrgios

Up until about 12 months ago, when talking about Australian tennis you could quite comfortably lump Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios into the same too hard basket. Kyrgios had just returned from a ATP suspension for giving up during a match at the Shanghai Masters, whilst Tomic was embroiled in a war of words with Roger Federer after Rog suggested Bernard needed to work on his game. At the time Tomic was ranked 17th in the World – yes really – and Federer was pointing out what might be needed for him to break into the Top 10, but rather than take advice from (arguably) the greatest ever tennis player, Tomic chose to do what he does best – petulance.

Fast forward twelve months, and Kyrgios and Tomic are harder to talk about in the same breath.

After failing to qualify for this year’s Australian Open, Tomic – now ranked 143rd in the world – was asked quite reasonably, “So Bernard, what now for you?” to which he replied:

“I just count money, that’s all I do. I count my millions. You go do what I did [on court]. Bye bye. You go make 13-14 million [dollars]. Good luck guys.”

As Tomic seems to be on the fast-track to starring in a 2025 episode of Where Are They Now? Kyrgios on the other hand, now ranked 17th – the position Tomic occupied last year – appears to be preparing for a decade of winning ATP titles and being a serious contender in grand slams.

Today, the Australian media is awash of stories of public redemption for Nick as he seemed to “care” and have a real go during his Round 4 loss to Grigor Dimitrov.

But has anything really changed? Has he matured? Has he found his purpose?

No idea.

I am, however, interested to observe how he handles things now they appear to be going well for him. He won the Brisbane title a couple of weeks ago, the media are easing up, and even Will Smith seems to love the guy. But even with the Fresh Prince in your corner, sometimes success masks one’s shortcomings rather than prove they’ve been addressed.

For example, when Nick has managed to beat either Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal (in total he has done this five times in his career) only once has he has gone on to win his next game and it’s just possible that a victory against any of these three players might serve to prove to himself, and all his doubters that he really can play and everyone should just leave him alone.

Being caught in a mindset focused on proving oneself, leaves little room for improving. 

With elite athletes, as well as improving technique, tactics and strategy, the role of challenging the proving v improving mindset is the domain of the coach. In Kyrgios’ case, he doesn’t have one. In the past he’s said he’s “not too fussed” about having a coach, but in recent times he employed Sebastien Grosjean before the two parted company late last year, so he started this year, once again coach-less. This point that has been picked up on by virtually every tennis commentator who say when Nick plays, he plays what’s in front of him, he’s a natural talent – Jim Courier likened him to a free-flowing jazz performer – yet when the very top players play, as well as talent, they have a plan or game management strategy. These strategies are developed with the opponents strengths and weaknesses in mind and whist a player might not be able to research every opponent s/he might come up against, a coach can.

During his loss to Dimitrov, Krygios was called for foot faults, something he remonstrated with the Umpire about, being heard on mic saying, “I haven’t been called for a foot fault for the last three years. That’s twice today. It’s not possible man.” Whether correct or not, it’s a simple technical issue – that can cost games – that a player would struggle to identify during practice. But a coach could.

It seems clear to most who know more about tennis and Krygios than I do, that even a “natural talent” like Nick would benefit from a coach, so it begs the question, why doesn’t he have one?

It might be that to engage a coach would require Nick to admit he isn’t good enough. It might require him to work harder than he has done before, or change the manner in which he goes about his life. And for him to want to do this he has to really love, not only tennis, but all the hard work it takes to be his best.

And it might be that he’s not that keen on any of these things. He’s said before he’s not keen on tennis.

But I think it’s possible that in elite sport individuals feel defined by their outcomes, their win/loss percentage or their stats. They feel judged by what they produce, rather than who they are. And as I eluded to before, when things are going well, all is good, but when things start to get tricky, there are some who might see not trying, or not caring as a safe way out.

Almost counter-intuitively, some individuals who feel defined by, or valued because of their performance or outcomes, might actually stop trying to produce. In doing so, the conversation focuses on their need to care more, or try harder – usually because they have the talent – and this is a safer conversation and plays to the ego of the athlete. Compare this to the confronting realisation that even after a sustained hundred percent effort the athlete still comes up short. For some, being called a brat, lazy, immature, wasted talent is safer for their self esteem than being seen as not good enough.

Given the recognition Nick has received for his effort, determination and attitude so far this year, as well as the plaudits for establishing the NK Foundation for underprivileged youth,  I’m very curious to see how he responds. I genuinely hope he does so positively.

Coaching Engagement & Motivation

What do adult learners really want?

A few weeks ago I was asked to speak to a group of school leaders. From the outset I was concerned that the brief from the client meant that I’d be doing a lot of talking. I flagged this with the client, indicating that rather than a workshop – given the amount of new content they wanted the delegates to be introduced to – it would be more akin to three 90 minute keynotes.

“No problem” came the reply.

As they say, the customer is always right. So I prepared at such.

At the lunch break after two of the keynote style sessions (with perhaps 5-10mins group work in total throughout the morning, a principal approached me, “Now, before I say anything, are you planning to do any group work this afternoon?” she asked.

My heart sank. My greatest fears had been realised. Even though I could tell that the group was really engaged in the morning, this principal was about to pull me up on the fact it had been all “chalk & talk” and she wasn’t happy with that. And if she wasn’t happy, perhaps I had misread the room entirely?

“Erm… I hadn’t planned to, but I could, I mean err… well, I was asked by the organiser to cover off on all this, and err… oh I don’t know… maybe I could, yeah… no… ahh, yep, we could definitely do some group work if you like…” I replied, navigating the conversation rather expertly I think you’ll agree.

“Oh, good grief no!” she said, “At last we’ve got someone treating us like professionals. If you make us get into groups and give us post-it notes I’m outta here.”

Now to be clear, this is the very first time I’ve ever heard anyone say they’d prefer to listen all day rather than work in groups to share their experiences and so forth. And even though the feedback from the principals and school leaders after the three keynotes was very positive, it’s fair to say I took this principal’s opinion as an anomaly and didn’t think too much more about it.

Until this weekend, when I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled Why Are Corporate Training Course Usually Awful? 

The article by Jim Bright asked the reader to consider:

  • Why are trainers obsessed with “group work”? I have invested my fee or time to hear the expert share their insights.

  • After each group has reported back, generally at excruciating length, the point of the exercise is revealed. Generally, the point was about as predictable as a sunrise, but considerably less illuminating. And so the pattern is set for a day of plasticine snake making and writing pretentious things on butcher’s paper.

  • I do not want to have to listen to the pontifications of Jones from accounts, whose expertise in the matter under discussion has hitherto mysteriously been concealed so well under their bushell it was reasonable to conclude that they have not got a clue what they are talking about.

  • This adult likes to be respected by a trainer who recognises that he would like to hear what they have to say more than he wants to hear how others react to what they say.

For me, this is particularly interesting, although I recognise that whether or not delegates want to participate in group will largely depend on two factors; the group themselves and the purpose of the session. For me I think I’ll still be gravitating towards group work and having the participants share their insights as that actually helps me to mould the workshops as they play out. Given I use a coaching approach in my sessions I appreciate the art of good questioning to elicit more relevant responses than perhaps Jones from accounts comes up with.

What do you think? To group or not to group? That is the question…

Coaching Mindset

My Top Tip for Would-Be Presenters & Speakers

I’ve lost count of the amount of people who ask me for advice about public speaking or presenting.

The most common question I get is along the lines of:

“I’m okay chatting to you or say a few people, but put me in front of a boardroom or hall full of people and I lose it. How do I get over that?”

This is my advice.

I assume you know your stuff. If you don’t, I can’t help you.

“Yeah, I really know my stuff, it’s just the amount of people that gets me” is the usual response.

Well in that case, I say, remember this:

The more people there are, the easier it is. 

If you’re talking to me 1:1 you’ve only got one shot at making a connection or persuading me of your point of view. Speak to me and a colleague, your odds have just doubled. I could continue to do the maths with 10, 20 50, 100+ in the audience but you get the gist. Your odds of making a connection with your audience increases (I think) exponentially with each additional audience member.

Tell a joke to one person, you need a 100% success rate to get a laugh. Tell it to 500, a 15% success rate will have you feeling like Jerry Seinfeld.

Add to the mix that when you’re presenting (unless you’re Pauline Hanson) most people actually want you to do well They’re on your side.

So I’ll say it again.

The more people there are, the easier it is. 

Now go knock that presentation out of the park! 🙂

PS: If you’re after any other tips about doing talks and stuff professionally, check out these tips I put together a while back.