Personal Branding Interview: Michael Bungay Stanier

Today, I spoke to Michael Bungay Stanier, who is the founder and Senior Partner of Box of Crayons and author of Do More Great Work. In this interview, Michael talks about what “great work” is, how great work effects the workplace, and more ideas in his new book.

How do you define “great work”? What are some examples?

To understand “Great Work” you first need to understand Bad Work and Good Work.

Bad Work = the aimless, pointless, mindless bureaucratic work that sucks you dry

Good Work = productive efficient, focused, necessary work. Your job description. It’s comfortable – sometimes too comfortable. And these days – with emails, meetings and matrixed organizations – overwhelming. There’s simply too much.

Great Work = the work that matters, the work you care about, the work that makes a difference. It’s what stretches us, challenges us, and calls us forward to be our best. It’s different for each of us, but it’s impact is the same: it helps us grow and evolve. Sometimes it’s like being “in flow”. Sometimes it’s a place of uncertainty and anxiety.

Do you need employees that do both good and great work? What’s the difference?

The art is finding the right balance between Good and Great – both at an individual level and at a corporate level. In fact, one way of defining strategy is articulating the right mix of Good Work (efficient, productive, short-term profit generating) and Great Work (innovation, change, future growth).

I suspect it would be almost impossible to do nothing but Great Work. It would be overwhelming. It’s like working out. You need both stress and recovery to grow, not constant stress.

However, I will say this. Having asked thousands of people, one thing is consistent: everyone wants a little more Great Work.

What is one exercise in your book that helps people realize what kind of work they are doing?

A simple exercise, and one that gives you a good snap shot of “how are things now” is this:

  1. Draw a big circle on a bit of paper
  2. Using the definitions of Bad Work, Good Work and Great Work that are above, divide the circle into three segments that represent how much of each type of work you’re doing – together with one or two examples of each type of work for you.

This quick exercise gives you a sense of your current mix, and forces you to put some labels of how you spend your time. It’s often quite a sobering exercise. People often have between 0-25% Great Work, 10-40% Bad Work, and the rest (and the majority) Good Work. People are often shocked at how little Great Work they have, and how much time they spend just trying to get through the Good Work.

How can someone figure out what’s most important in their line of work?

That’s a great question. Let me offer up three possible routes.

  1. First, look back. Look at the peak moments from your past, moments when you felt you were at your best. Those are great to remember – but they’re more than that. They give you clues as to what really matters to you, what’s important.
  2. A second route is through the work of Marcus Buckingham. I’m a big fan of his definitions of ‘strengths’ – not something you can do well, but something that energizes and strengthens you rather than depletes you. (Ironically, we can all do things very well which are in fact Bad Work for us)
  3. And finally, it’s worth taking time to sit with the question, “What do I want?” It’s often a tough question to answer, but spending some time reflecting on that will pay dividends.

What “great work” have you done?

My Great Work continues to evolve. When I first started coaching one to one, it was definitely Great Work – I’d have sweaty palms waiting for the phone to ring. Now I’m experienced as a coach, it’s Good Work for me. Writing my books have all been Great Work. And currently, scaling up my corporate coaching program Coaching for Great Work is Great Work for me.

Michael Bungay Stanier is the founder and Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work. His latest book is called Do More Great Work (Workman Publishing). His first book, Get Unstuck & Get Going on the stuff that matters, won a number of awards and was endorsed by Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, the management expert Peter Block, business author and coach Marshall Goldsmith and many others. Michael has also created The Eight Irresistible Principles of Fun and The 5.75 Question You’ve Been Avoiding, short internet movies seen by millions of people around the world. Michael was a Rhodes Scholar and the 2006 Canadian Coach of the Year. He is Australian and now lives in Canada.