Dave Stachowiak on Great Relationships & Conversations
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Dave Stachowiak is the host of the Coaching for Leaders podcast, a top-rated careers podcast on iTunes that’s downloaded over 150,000 times every month. He’s also the founder of the Coaching for Leaders Academy, an exclusive, year-long leadership development cohort for managers, executives and business owners who want to develop leadership excellence — and empower each other.
In this interview, Dave and I reflect on:
- The power of stories to foster connection and trust.
- The roles that both facilitation and design play in creating a space where people want to participate with each other.
- How learning often happens when the facilitator can leverage the experience of other people in the room.
- Why one should get out of the business of answering questions and get into the business of asking them.
- The value in aiming low to get momentum going.
Also mentioned in this podcast:
- The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, by Patrick Lencioni
- Dale Carnegie
- BJ Fogg
- The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer
Michael: So you know the cool caliber of people I get on The Coaching Habit Podcast, because that’s what you’re listening to right now, The Coaching Habit Podcast, and I am Michael Bungay Stanier. As part of the joy of putting my book out, The Coaching Habit, I appeared on a bunch of podcasts. Some really big names listened to by bazillions, many I suspect not listened to by anybody whatsoever, but I have been on one podcast that I have truly loved and it is the Coaching for Leaders podcast. You may have heard it, because the host is David Stachowiak. Such a nice guy and really truly one at the forefront at bringing together people who are committed to coaching and leadership, and making a difference. So if you haven’t listened to a podcast for a while, if I’m the only podcast person you’re listening to, that’s a terrible mistake.
You definitely need to subscribe to Dave’s podcast, the Coaching Leaders podcast. He has interviewed David Allen, Dan Pink, Susan Cain, Adam Grant, Marshall Goldsmith, Patrick Lencioni. Honestly, some of those people I’ve interviewed, some of them I’ve been trying for years to interview and they keep turning me down. So go listen to Dave’s podcast. I’ve been on it a couple of times and I get to swap seats this time and interview Dave. I’m super-excited about it. He’s also the founder of the Coaching for Leaders Academy, an exclusive year-long leadership development cohort for managers, executives and business owners who want to develop leadership excellence, and empower each other. Dave, that was slightly gushing as an introduction but damn it, I’m going to stick with it. How are you?
Dave Stachowiak: I’ll take it, Michael. Thank you so much for the invitation to be here. I’m honored.
Michael: Yeah, on thecoachinghabit.com page where we offer up some additional resources, yours is the podcast we suggest people listen to.
Dave Stachowiak: I had no idea, thank you so much for that.
Michael: My pleasure, my pleasure. All right, so enough self-congratulatory, “No, you’re awesome,” “No, you’re awesome.”
Dave Stachowiak: I’ve been working on my Australian accent.
Michael: That’s good. Honestly, if that’s your Australian accent, you still need to keep working on your Australian accent. But I’ve given people a hint of what you’re up to, but tell me what’s the impact you’re really looking for to have in the work these days? What’s your great work?
Dave Stachowiak: Two things I think about a lot right now. One of them is helping leaders make great friends.
Michael: That’s awesome, I love how you said that.
Dave Stachowiak: I believe you should be able to describe what you do in a way that an eight-year-old can articulate it. So that’s what I tell people and that’s really my work with the Academy, of the people I’m working with, is leadership is a very lonely pursuit in a lot of ways-
Dave Stachowiak: -for most of us, and we have this amazing ability now with technology and video conferencing to be collaborating like crazy with leaders from all over the world. Most of us aren’t doing it, and so a couple of years ago we kicked off the Academy, and the goal of the Academy is not to bring a curriculum, but is to empower great relationships. So when people run into struggles as leaders, which we all do every day, we’ve got a go-to trusted source of relationships, of people who are willing to be objective and invested. That’s huge. The other piece that I’m doing for the broader audience that listens to Coaching for Leaders is just creating space for great conversation. I just think we’re missing so many opportunities in society today for having really great conversations, and I love nothing more than to have someone come on the show who can be helpful to our audience, and have a great conversation with them that’s fun to listen to, is inspiring to me, is inspiring to the audience, and then to have the audience have one thing that they can take away immediately walking into the workplace that day, they can apply and make their lives and work better for the people that they’re influencing.
Michael: Wonderful. Tell me … I really do love that idea of helping leaders make friends, because it’s not language you really hear but I get an immediate hit around how useful, how wonderful, what a contribution that is. And I can’t help but think that when you gather people together in this virtual academy, and having people lean in, be vulnerable, connect, that’s not an easy thing to do. Because it’s hard to do it the best of times, and to do it with strangers online. Here we’ve got lots of training to kind of be a bit wary about that, so how do you start helping people step forward into what is possibly new friendships?
Dave Stachowiak: Two ways. One of them is being very clear on what expectations are for what the Academy is trying to do, and I’d be happy to share the page with the link of our expectations for the Academy, Michael, if that’s of interest to people.
Michael: Yeah, that’d be great, yeah.
Dave Stachowiak: I am a believer that at the root of every human conflict is unclear expectations, and so I spend a lot of time with people who are applying for the Academy, of talking about expectations in advance. I’ve interviewed everyone personally, so this isn’t one of those things where someone signs up and puts in a credit card, and gets access right away. It is very much a very personal process. It’s very time-intensive for me but it’s worth doing because I want to make sure that those relationships are right. So that is huge, and then the first few sessions are huge. We spend a lot of time doing relationship-building, so we do … I’ve borrowed or stolen, depending on how you look at it, some of the lessons that I’ve learned over the years, from Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni’s model on how do you get people together for the first time and do a personal histories exercise.
So we do that as one of our first sessions, and we don’t even talk about roles in the organization really. We talk about, “Tell us what you’ve been doing, where you came from. Tell us a little bit about your life story.” Fred Rogers, my favorite theologian, has this great quote. It says, “It is impossible for you not to love someone once you’ve heard their story.” So we spend the first … really month in the Academy talking about stories. And then the … I don’t want to say it’s easy, but it’s very natural that the conversations about what’s going on today in the workplace, and the trust, really comes out naturally. The other thing that really helps, Michael, is the kind of person who listens to a show called Coaching for Leaders and applies to the Academy.
One thing I’ve learned is the podcast is really great at attracting people who already have the orientation to being a learner and seeker, and be open to coaching, and really wanting that out of relationships and not getting that a lot of times, either from the manager or from some of the colleagues they work with. So they are ready and willing and just excited to jump in, and I think to be a little more vulnerable than we might see in like a traditional corporate program if we shut up … brought a bunch of leaders together.
Michael: Yeah, it’s interesting. My memory is, of those five dysfunctions, the very first one that Lencioni talks about is trust, or lack of trust. So I think it’s wonderful that that early commitment is how do we build trust through some of these intimacies, through the storytelling process.
Dave Stachowiak: Yup.
Michael: Now listen, I listen to your podcast and love it. I haven’t applied for your academy but I’m kind of a profile of the person who might, and if I look at patterns of behavior I know I have, there is on one hand a hunger for friendship and intimacy and trust, and on the other hand a kind of weird kind of fear of it at the same time. I’m like, “Look, I want it, but my default is to kind of linger, to kind of hold back, to lean out rather than to lean in.” I’m guessing you encounter something like that with some of the people. How do you nurture those people who are a little more reluctant to kind of open their hearts?
Dave Stachowiak: That’s way having been a trainer and facilitator for Dale Carnegie for 15 years is really helpful. That, for me … I do see myself as a coach but I’m a better trainer and facilitator. So my job is to create the space where everyone feels comfortable to participate, and where they do not, I’ll be that person that is making that invitation for participation to happen. More often than not, when I find that someone is holding back a bit, the quieter, more introverted person … which by the way I am too when I’m not the facilitator … more often than not when I talk with them off-line or we’re talking one-on-one, they’ll say something like, “I feel like I want to contribute more,” and/or, “I’m not saying enough or I just feel a little hesitant,” and they’re wanting to jump in as often I am when I’m in that situation.
So what I’ll do as a facilitator, we’ll just talk in advance and say, “You know, would it help if I made the invitation to you in the session, when we’re together, to come in and to prime the pump a little bit, and to be thinking about how you can add into the conversation based on what I know about you? I’ve never had someone say, “No.” Usually it’s a very enthusiastic, “Yes,” and then we’ll start doing that in the next few sessions, and then that becomes a lot more natural. The other way that makes it easy is it’s not thirty people, Michael, it’s six or seven.
One of the things that I’ve really struggled with in being part of some of these like online programs over the years, where you go online and there’s 1,500 people on the forums or there’s a membership, I really did not want that experience, not only for myself but for the people who are part of the Academy community. So, I mean our entire Academy is fifty people, and each small group is six to seven, and so it’s a very intimate experience. If someone’s not there, everyone notices and people are asking and reaching out to that person on Slack afterwards, “Hey, you know, we missed you. Are you okay?” So it’s by both facilitation and design, really creating the space where people want to engage, and that works out really well.
Michael: I love that you’re pointing to you being more of a facilitator than a coach. I think of myself in exactly the same way, and part of what I love about the process you just shared is this commitment … I’m reading into this, I’m projecting I guess, but it’s a commitment around engaging but not in a way that could potentially make you or that other person lose face. I know when I’m running a session or training or when I teach my facilitators for our programs at Box of Crayons, it’s really important not to have somebody be shamed in some way, subtly or un-subtly, in front of a group, because then not only are they shamed but the whole group is like, “Okay, no longer feel safe here, no longer feels like a place where I can take a risk.” So that idea of being able to invite somebody in, but checking with them first, is such great advice.
Dave Stachowiak: It was one of the skills I learned as a Carnegie instructor over the years, a master trainer at one point taught me, never leave a participant alone in a negative. So I work really hard … and now it’s second nature so I probably don’t appreciate the power of that as much as I did when I first learned it … but I work really hard never to let someone feel like they left a session or a conversation feeling like they failed in some way or that they were left alone in the negative. So if something comes up that’s negative … we work really hard, not only me but the other Academy members too, to really acknowledge that. Not try to change anyone certainly. I think one of the things … Michael, I hope you don’t mind me saying this … a lot of folks in our industry, they’re very rah-rah, “Things are good.”
Michael: I’m totally into you, yeah.
Dave Stachowiak: “Let’s be enthusiastic,” I’ve seen a lot of that in my career. We really, as a society and as a business culture, look like we’re too soon sometimes to, “Like, okay, put on a happy face even though this bad thing happened, and let’s move through it.” I want our Academy sessions – and I hope they are for most of our members – is people show up and know that if they’re having a bad day or something awful just happened in the workplace, or even something awful happened personally … that they’re okay being there, and that we don’t try to change them, and at the same time we’re there to listen and say, “We are here with who you are and how you’re showing up, when it good, bad, ugly, whatever it is, and how can we help support you right now?”
Michael: Yeah. It reminds me of, this is more than a decade ago now, but at one stage when the ICF were running their really big annual conferences, myself and some friends did a session called, I think it’s called “The Five Unspeakable Truths About Coaching”, and it was a reaction to that rah-rah, “Everything’s good, everything’s liked, everything’s appreciated,” to say, “Look, what’s the shadow side of coaching? What’s the shadow side of ourselves?” And to try and create a space around that. I think the participants loved the experience, although the recording was never released because it was too controversial, so I was like-
Dave Stachowiak: I love it.
Michael: I know, it was pretty funny.
Dave Stachowiak: You know, of course I fail at this all the time, Michael.
Dave Stachowiak: That’s just part of the nature of doing this. I know there are times that I’ve said something or I’ve moved on from something and probably, without me knowing, that person needed me or the group to be there with them more in person. So it’s a constant struggle for me to keep in check as a facilitator, like how can I honor everyone who’s here in the best possible way?
Michael: You’ve hinted a little bit about your past and the work you’ve done before. One of the things that I’m always curious about is, for the people I get to talk to, what is their journey? Just your point earlier on about, “Tell us your story.” The doorway into this for me is that phrase, “Inspiration is when your past suddenly makes sense.” Built into that is this idea, I think, that we’ve all had these crossroad moments, moments where you could have gone left, or you could have gone right. You took one of those directions and it kind of shifted things, it made all the difference. So I’m curious, for you, is there one or two kinds of crossroad moments that you’d share?
Dave Stachowiak: Yeah, gosh, there are so many over the years. I think the thing that comes to mind for me is thinking about being in graduate school for a lot of years. You and I both spent a lot of time in grad school, so the thing that I really loved about being in school, and I’ve probably been in school more years than I haven’t in my life, is I love the conversations and the energy about learning that would happen in a great class discussion. That for me was like really exciting when that happened, like you get in a Master’s program or a doctoral program, you get like a group of professionals together who are really smart people, who care a lot, who are invested in learning, and for me, one of the a-has I had during that process of all those years is like, how little that happens as part of a formal academic program.
A lot of the time is we got to hit this curriculum, we’ve got this classroom exercise, we’re writing papers, we’re doing grading, all the things that traditionally go with formal programs. And I got to thinking, even as an instructor, I’ve taught as well at university programs and masters programs, and there’s so much work to be done around all that other stuff which is really valuable, of course, but I wondered like how could I create more discussion? Like what if we could take out all the papers and all that other stuff, and just have really good discussions with smart people? That’s how the Academy started off, was that drive. So for me it was part of getting to the end of that process, and wanting that to continue but not wanting to write any more papers, both for myself but for the other people around me. And so the Academy started from that. That was definitely one point.
Michael: For sure, yeah.
Dave Stachowiak: The other point, from a learning standpoint, there are so many things I could say personally, but I think from a professional standpoint, being an instructor for Carnegie for so many years, one of the things I’ve really come to appreciate is that people learn the most when they’re struggling with something. And how rarely it happens that the session that’s being facilitated on this date is going to match up with what that person needs in the moment. Sometimes it’s six months too early, sometimes it’s a year too late, and in a lot of places there isn’t a lot of flexibility to address that. I think actually Carnegie does a better job than most of really staying with people in the moment. I really realized how often some of the best learning would happened before session or after session, like in one-on-ones, like someone would say, “You know, I’m dealing with this right now. I know we’re going to be talking about this in three or four weeks, but like do you have any advice?”
I think a formal training program, a curriculum, is really great for a lot of things. When you get to a point where you’ve had some significant level of experience in your career, especially if you’ve been a leader for a while, there comes a point where that spontaneous discussion in the moment, I think becomes even more valuable. So that was another … I don’t know if it was an a-ha, but over time I’d had that happen enough times where I thought there’s a lot of value I add by showing up, not even by whatever curriculum that’s there, because of the space I can create and because of just the interest I have in the space. What could we do around that? I just spent a lot of years thinking about that, but that’s again part of what led me to not only the podcast itself and doing that, but also the Academy initiative.
Michael: Yeah. One of our design principles, and you see it in the book and in our programs is, what’s the least I could teach that would be the most useful? Rather than continually kind of shove content in, which is what I really want to do, because I love … when I find good content I’m like, “This is fantastic,” or “I invented this,” or “I’ve re-framed that.” But just in that full commitment to the learning of an experience. So like, wow, if we could just have as little content as possible, but no less than that. So you’re just trying to find that sweet spot between just a flavoring of content that then allows interaction and conversation and experience to emerge, that becomes quite the wonderful thing.
Dave Stachowiak: Yeah, for me there is an art there. I hear what you’re saying, it’s like finding that perfect spot of like bringing in the right model and the right book and the right content and the right theory, when it’s appropriate, but also having the flexibility to move between that and asking great questions and talking about experience. And leveraging the other experience of people in the room, and to be able to move through that really fluidly. One thing I’ve come to realize is that’s something that I’ve a talent in, and that’s really an art, to do that. and so that’s where I’ve spent my time and I’ve really moved away from being more of a traditional trainer in a lot of the things I’m doing now, and being much more of a facilitator-coach or ‘facil-oach’. I don’t know, but some other word there, probably.
Michael: Yeah, whatever that portmanteau word is you just came up with, that’s a terrible word. We’ll back away from that, we’ll just call it facilitator-coach. That’s perfect.
Dave Stachowiak: Maybe there’s an Australian word.
Michael: Maybe there is, yeah. Nothing’s coming to mind. I love your reflecting on this experience, reflecting on this journey, and reflecting on the importance of learning and support and friendship. Which is a perfect setup for this next question I want to ask you, which is as you’ve gone along your path, not only have there been these crossroad moments but there’s been these kind of lessons you’ve had to learn along the way. That kind of like you’re not really going to progress until you get this. As I’ve come to realize, most of us don’t have thousands of these to learn, we just have a few of them, but we just have to keep learning them over and over and over again, because they just keep showing up in slightly different manifested ways. “Oh, here’s that lesson again.” So I’m wondering for you, what’s the hard lesson on your part that you’ve had to learn or perhaps you have to keep on learning?
Dave Stachowiak: Getting out of the business of answering questions and getting into the business of asking them.
Michael: Now you’re just sucking up to me, and I like that.
Dave Stachowiak: Yeah, it’s so true.
Dave Stachowiak: Part of this is, as much as I appreciate and value my formal academic training, I’ve had to unlearn a lot of stuff, and the stuff I’ve had to unlearn is that success is you get a 95% or higher on something, and I don’t just mean on a paper, but we have this orientation in a lot of organizations too, “Success is when I meet or exceed whatever metric that has been set by the organization.” Yeah, we all have to have metrics and we need to hit them, and part of the path of learning and growth, and the organizations that are really doing innovative things, is being willing to fail and struggle and for that to be acceptable and even encouraged in the organization, and say, “Hey, we’re not aiming for failure, but let’s fail fast, and let’s learn and let’s grow as we go.” That is something that, the last five or six years, I’m still working on this but I’ve definitely changed my orientation to rather than trying to do things perfectly, is starting things and having much more an orientation to leading indicators now than lagging indicators. If I do a good job of focusing on the leading indicators, the lagging indicators will take of themselves eventually.
Michael: Give me an example of a leading indicator. I know what you mean, I think, but to bring it to life, can you point out the difference between one and the other, the lagging indicator?
Dave Stachowiak: Yeah, one example from my personal life is staying healthy, keeping my weight in check, right? One way to do this is to get on the scale every day and see what the numbers show on the screen, right? That’s the lagging indicator. The leading indicator for me is if I record in my Lose It! app what I’m eating during the day, which I do religiously, I don’t have to worry so much about what the scales are going to say when I get on it, because I already know, because the leading indicator is the behavior for me that if I do recording in advance, I know that I’m going to eat well, I’m going to stay healthy, and even when I jump off the boat once in a while and eat too much, and I’m not healthy and don’t work out, I already know that. So I can get back to the behaviors I want much more quickly.
Michael: Yeah, it’s that kind of commitment to the process where you’re like, “I’m going to work the process.”
Dave Stachowiak: Yes.
Michael: And if the process is a good one, it’s going to take me somewhere interesting and useful. Rather than work the outcome and go, “Oh, the outcome still hasn’t failed,” I beat myself up about that. All you get to control is the process.
Dave Stachowiak: I do that so much more professionally now too. When we launched the Academy, we started with 12 people. It was at a much lower price point, and we had a couple of cool things that I knew … I was fairly sure would work out, but none of the ecosystem was there. We didn’t even have an online form or anything. But we went to our audience and said, “Hey, we’re starting this. Here’s the core pieces that’ll be there. It’s going to be a year commitment. Here’s the price point, and if you want to do it, you’re going to be learning with us. As a part of what you’re going to sign on for, is you teaching me what you need and what we add on to.” It was a blast, we didn’t have things figured out all then, there were some mistakes we made. But we’re all in it together and saying, “Hey, we’re going to learn as we go. We’re going to do this, we’re going to make it better.” I know one of the things I’m so proud of is we’re almost three years in now, all of those original 12 people are still with us.
Michael: That’s great.
Dave Stachowiak: And we only made a one-year commitment. But it was us and them and me all focus on, “Let’s focus on the leading indicators first,” of like what’s the effort we’re putting in, what expectations do we have for each other. If we do that well, the outcomes take care of themselves.
Michael: Yeah, beautiful. Dave, as a final question, and it is a beautiful lead-in from what you’ve just been talking about, about the work you do in teaching others and facilitating others in the Academy and beyond. You know this is called The Coaching Habit, you know that partly I’m always just curious as to what are the tools or processors or ways of working that seem to work really well. I’m always on the hunt for kind of best in class, so when you’re helping someone, is there a tool or a processor or a model that you go to time and time again, a kind of trusted, tried favorite of yours?
Dave Stachowiak: I promise I’m not just trying to suck up to you, but the seven questions from The Coaching Habit are on a keyboard shortcut on Apple Notes. Because I’m doing so much online, I literally pull that up just about daily.
Dave Stachowiak: It’s a reminder to me to not do what we were talking about earlier, is getting out of the business of answering questions. So I’ll literally keep them on the screen in front of me, and sometimes I look at them more and sometimes I don’t, but it’s the reminder to me to be in the business of asking questions. So that’s one, so thank you so much for that gift you’ve given all of us.
Michael: No, thank you. But give us another tool, because otherwise people will think we’re just, this is really this weird bro-mance that’s happening here.
Dave Stachowiak: The other one is, aim low.
Michael: What do you mean by that? That’s intriguing, but …
Dave Stachowiak: Yeah, one of the challenges I have in working with our audience and our Academy members is they’re people like us, Michael, who really are learners and seekers. They think big, they have grand visions, they set really high goals for themselves, as do I. And then they have a hard time getting started sometimes, and so one of the things I’ve learned to appreciate in working with clients and in my own life certainly is I am often coaching people on, “Let’s make that smaller.” And some of the research that’s been done on habits in the last few years-
Michael: Yeah, sure, exactly.
Dave Stachowiak: -is really fascinating on this, like the work you’re doing and-
Michael: Yeah, B. J. Fogg.
Dave Stachowiak: B. J. Fogg, that’s right, sorry. For me, that tiny approach of like, “Let’s get the momentum started,” and that’s something that I also learned from Carnegie and watching Carnegie do this brilliantly in classes, of if you want to get someone comfortable at speaking in front of a room, on the first session of the class you don’t get them up and have them speak in front of the whole room for three or four minutes. You have them stand up and just say their name. So what I’m spending a lot of my time doing in sessions is not asking people to think bigger. I’m encouraging people to think big, of course, but tactically when we talk about what’s the commitment we’re going to make for the next session, I’m encouraging them to think smaller. So if they set a goal for, “I’m going to be doing this over the next five days,” the coaching I’m often doing is, “What’s one time for sure you could do it?”
Michael: Yeah, nice.
Dave Stachowiak: Or, “What’s a lower metric that you can clear?” Because once you clear it, even if it’s a smaller goal, you start the momentum and you get the success, you’re like, “Oh, okay, I can do this.” And then the next one’s a little bit bigger, and a little bit bigger after that. I’ve gotten so excited about this, Michael, I literally had put in our marketing materials for the Academy, I put in, “Aim low at low bars,” in some of the … and then one of our members came to me and was like, “You know, you may not want to put that in the marketing materials. I know where you’re going with it …”
Michael: Yeah, “Achieve mediocrity with Dave.” Yeah, perfect.
Dave Stachowiak: But from a tactical standpoint and a coaching standpoint, it’s the way I’ve been successful in the things I’ve done that have been successful in my career. And when I haven’t been successful, it’s the way I’ve screwed up, is I’ve tried to do too much all at once. When I’ve done the little things consistently, that’s what’s made all the difference.
Michael: There’s nice connections out there to things like cognitive behavioral therapy, and I’m thinking of Teresa Amabile’s book, The Progress Principle. All speak to the same thing, which is step-by-step is likely to be more successful than trying to attempt one huge leap.
Dave Stachowiak: Absolutely.
Michael: Dave, for people who are now curious, you’ve talked about the Academy a few times. You’ve certainly talked about the podcast a few times, as have I. And there are a lot going, “I need to find out more about this man.” Where can they find you online?
Dave Stachowiak: The best place is just to go to coachingforleaders.com, tons of resources there including a free membership, and the podcast is Coaching for Leaders, you can find it anywhere.
Michael: Perfect. What a great URL that is, coachingforleaders. Boy, you nailed that.
Dave Stachowiak: There’s a funny story behind that, but I’ll save it for another day.
Michael: Perfect. Dave, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
Dave Stachowiak: Thanks, Michael.