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Trials & Tribulations of a Thought Leadership Speaker | Michael Bungay-Stanier | 209

How to Go from Being a World-Class SEO to A Renowned Thought Leadership Speaker

An interview with Michael-Bungay-Stanier about thought leadership strategy in speaking and presentations, and how to measure thought leadership success against audience interest.

We interviewed Michael Bungay-Stanier, Founder of Box of Crayons, top-rated thought leadership speaker, and author of The Coaching Habit and The Advice Trap, about thought leadership speakership. He talks about his journey from CEO to speaker, and how thought leadership speakership can change more than one life for the better.

Three Key Takeaways from the Interview:

  • How he stepped away from this CEO role, and turned his talents toward becoming a thought leadership speaker.
  • Why it’s important that your audience recognize you and realize your value before you begin speaking.
  • Why a good thought leadership speaker should market their book even as they’re writing it.


Peter And welcome, welcome, welcome, this is Peter Winick. I’m the founder and CEO of Thought Leadership Leverage, and you’re joining us on the podcast today, which is Leveraging Thought Leadership. So today I’m really excited. My guest is Michael Bungay-Stanier. And I’m going to read you a little bit of his bio, because I it is rare that I get a bio that makes me chuckle. So I wanted to share this with you. My name is Michael. I can hop. Do you want to see me hop? That’s how I introduced myself to bemuse strangers at the supermarket when I was three. Not much has changed, although my mom is a little less embarrassed. So here’s the rest of the bio. So Michael is at the forefront of shaping how organizations around the world make being coach like an essential leadership competency. His book, The Coaching Habit, is the best selling car coaching book of the century, with over seven hundred thousand copies sold a zillion positive reviews on Amazon. He has been named Canadian Coach of the year. He was a Rhodes Scholar. He’s the founder of a company called Box of Crayons. He’s a member of the MGE 50. He’s got new books coming out. He’s one of the best keynoter is out there. And more importantly, he’s just an all around good guys. Welcome aboard today, Michael.

Michael Bungay-Stanier I am happy to be here. Thank you for having me. Thank you for its time and all around. Good guy as well. That probably means the most out of all of those things.

Peter And given that this is audio, only if you’d like to hop, you know, feel for it.

Michael Bungay-Stanier I am hopping.

Peter Excellent.

Michael Bungay-Stanier Kind of hear that. I’m literally here hopping on one foot even as we speak.

Peter It is sort of like if a tree falls in the woods. How cool. So you’ve been at this game of content and thought leadership and speaking and authorship for a while. How long how long has it been?

Michael Bungay-Stanier No, I mean, I started box of crayons almost 20 years ago and I was producing newsletters and writing and bits and pieces right from the start. I mean, one of the very first things I ever did was a little video called the 8 Irresistible Principles of Fun, which took off and went viral before kind of viral videos were a thing. And I massively failed to capitalize on any of what I’ve been. I mean, they got seen by millions of people that I captured. Exactly zero people’s emails or inboxes or upsells or anything like that. But I’ve certainly been in the in the place of content creation for quite a while now.

Peter Excellent. So I want to start actually with a little bit of the end in mind. So when you and I spoke a couple weeks ago, you’re now at a place where a box of crayons, you know, the typical model is the author. The speaker is also the CEO and in charge of everything, very, very, very few. You know, you look at Blanchard and certainly Covey, maybe it’s just really actually get to the point where they’re able to turn their content businesses into real companies and not have to be the CEO taking care of the things they don’t want to speak up. So talk about the end of then I want to go back to how you got there, where you’re at. That’s a great place to be. How did you know that? Tell me a bit about it.

Michael Bungay-Stanier So in six months ago, I stepped away from being CEO, and a month ago I was kind of finally completely effectively walked off the premises as pie. Shannon, the new CEO, was like, Michael, I was doing a kind of secondary role your second year, but reporting to her all around some program design stuff. And she’s like, yeah, we’ve got to stop this. This isn’t really working. But you’re right.

Peter So she fired you basically from that channel.

Michael Bungay-Stanier I’m going to pretend that I resigned, but she got pretty much fired me. And it’s fantastic. I mean, honestly. And it’s discombobulating as well, because, you know, for 20 years, I’ve had this identity of the guy who’s box of crayons. I mean, because my son named Bungay Standards a bit of a mouthful. Lots of people call me Michael Crowns and Michael Box of Crowns or Michael B or C. So I’m taking off a suit I have worn pretty tightly for close to two decades. And so there’s one part of me that is vaguely traumatized by. Right. Right. Well, who am I now? What am I doing? How much showing up in the world? What? What do I stand for if I don’t stand for box of crayons? And there’s another part of me. The bigger part of me is gone. Well, first of all, Shannon in six months is being a better CEO than I’ve been in 20 years. I mean, she is just rocking it. It’s amazing.

Peter So let’s talk about that. So. So here’s what I’ve noticed in my many years of being in the space, helping lots of folks is early on. Folks take on that role because it’s, you know, hey, there’s no one else here. I guess I got to do this. Right. And then you sort of break down if you had to write a job description or whatever. Most of the things that a real CEO does are not the things that are great content creator or thought leader, speaker wants to be doing. You know, they need to be that some spending to make sure cash flow is healthy. Someone needs to we make sure margins are good. You know, maybe some of the stuff around setting the vision, the direction and all that stuff. But tell me about the things that you’ve been able to shed. The challenge, really. Does better than you, but what you’ve been able to do with it with that time that you’ve been able to release to someone else.

Michael Bungay-Stanier Well, so first of all, absolutely right. I mean, what’s the difference between Shannon coming and going? My job is to run this company as a as a successful business versus my approach, which is my job is to marvel at the fact that somehow, I’ve built a business and it’s miraculous in that alone. And it is a micro centric business, even though I very early on made the decision not to make myself that kind of the name of the business. And less so the face of the business trying to make it scalable. I was still, you know, very much the business just naturally organized itself around me because I’m a big personality. And when you’re the founder, you don’t really realize it, but you’re kind of your word goes the Shannon’s like going, no. Okay, I’m coming in and pivoting the business model where bringing a finance person who understands margins and actually gets a smart about money, we’re actually needing to shift the whole culture of the company so that we serve out different type of client in a different way. It’s a complete remake. And part of what’s brilliant about this is I wouldn’t have had the fortitude or the perseverance to go through with that. So I recognized my bill, my lack of abilities, which is I’m just not that interested in the practicalities and the actualities of scaling. I am I am ambitious for the impact I want my work to have. But you have to get out of your way to find people who can say, let me show you how to scale your work, which keeps you and your genius zone. And for me, that’s like I’m good at content creating. I’m good at having ideas. I’m good at being that translator that moves people from complexity through to simplicity on the other side. All of that is really my sweet spot. The other stuff I can I can drag my way through, but if I was still running the company, we would stick at kind of the revenue mark. We are now in grow a little bit change and take us to 10 million and 20 million dollars in revenue in three to five years. She’s just got a plan.

Peter Excellent. So I want to touch on two key things or big things that I picked up on what you said. One is that I’ll call it the curse of the creative, but it’s also the blessing of the creative right to you said, you know you know, you’re really good at building the content, delivering the content and getting the content out there. So that’s a blessing because it’s fun. And that’s not a role that you can put up a job listing on for ads that need someone that can write great books and be awesome to be like that’s not going to happen versus someone that can do cash flow analysis or product development or operation or whatever. So that’s the creative piece. Yeah. You know, just say listen. Yeah, that’s that is me. The other piece that you touched on, which I think is a little more complicated and a little bit more of what people struggle is if you look at it from linearly, the model is typically, hey, look at me. I’m a rock star. I do a bunch of cool stuff. Right. I write books, I speak or whatever. And then you get big enough to go, oh, don’t look at me, don’t look at me, look at my content, you know? Right. And I think that the whiplash that happens to the end user is, wait a minute. I bought a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which is Michael delivers the content. I take a bite of it and there’s an experience of that. Now there’s Michael. That’s one way to get it. It’s a premium product. It’s expensive. He goes to keynotes, whatever. But there’s a whole other suite of product offerings or solutions where, you know, I would say my job’s to make my clients irrelevant. So tell me sort of how do you have to have the stronger content and make you less? I don’t say make you irrelevant, but make you somewhat irrelevant.

Michael Bungay-Stanier Yeah. No, no. It’s a really great way to put I mean, some you should start a company called Thought Leadership Leverage because this is the heart of the work. Right. Which I think you get to it. And I think it’s an ego thing. Yeah. Which is it is really nice to feel like you have the spotlight and be the star and have the people calling. I’m going to. Michael, I’m warning you. You’re amazing. And believe me, my fragile male ego gets flattered by that. Yeah, of course. And I have bigger ambitions for the impact I want to have in this world, which is like I want I want to touch the language I uses. I want to infect a billion people with the possibility virus. So part of why that statement of a mission works for me is I. It speaks to a lot of people, a billion people. But the idea of a possibility virus means that it finds a way of spreading with like me to touch a billion people, that it means that nine hundred and ninety-nine million five hundred thousand are never gonna know who I am. They’re never gonna know my name. They know right away the idea items from a created content, means and ways of getting stuff out into the world that makes the world a better place. So I go, I’m happy to sacrifice the short term ego of being the star of the moment. With the bigger picture going, well, how do I just get stuff out there? I mean, you know, you’re like. Before we hit record, we’re talking about Marshall Goldsmith. So Marshall is a man who likes fame. He has to be famous. As you say, released his work really hard to be the best-known leadership person and coach.

Peter Well, he’ll joke and say number two or three. And everybody goes, I don’t know, because that’s the point.

Michael Bungay-Stanier He’s like, I even made a decision 35, 40 years ago to go, I’m going to be famous. And he has take that knocks. But, you know, with his Marshall Goldsmith 100, he’s setting up and he’s setting up a way of going. Here’s how my impact ripples beyond my name, because Marshall works with me. I work with somebody, somebody watching somebody else. And yeah, there’s a transmission of knowledge and impact that goes beyond the name and the personality and the spotlight. And that’s the bigger game. And I and the call for action, I think, is if you’re a thought leader, you go, well, man, is more somebody loving you or your ideas changing the world. And I hope for most people listen to this podcast. It’s the second of that. And then you go, So what will I say no to? So I can say yes to having the impact.

Peter So one of the ways I sort of frame what you just described is I believe and it’s just the world, according to me, probably not. Right. But what I’ve seen.

Michael Bungay-Stanier Yeah.

Peter Based on my experience is the three things that drive authors and thought leaders and content folks to do what they do. And it’s not that one’s better than the other. It’s more of a pie chart, right. So one is money. There’s some people call about the money. Right. I’m going to do this because, you know, I’m going to make a zillion dollars out of other people as why? Yeah, money is great. I’d like more the less. But, you know, not really that important. Second is ego, where there’s something in more mostly gratifying about seeing people, you know, being in front of a room and speaking like going to work every day where your job is to get up for an hour and it ends in a standing ovation. It’s not something, you know, the postman experience is right. Like, it’s sort of weird, right? You know, you’re somebody laying bricks at the end of the day. Is that all you know? And the day is a much longer day and they’re not flying first class to Scottsdale or something. Totally different experience. And then the last piece, which is I think where you were leaning towards is evangelism. And I don’t mean that in the religious perspective, but like part of the reason I’m on this planet is to unleash these concepts, these all these ideas that either relieve suffering or just make the world a better place for certain people. I think it’s being honest with yourself as a thought. Leaders say at this point, my career theirs. Here’s what that pie chart looks like. Let me evaluate it again in a year or two maybe. You know, money’s hit a certain threshold. I can afford to be more evangelical. Like I would argue that Marshall is in more of an evangelical stage right now. And then we talk about the money separately. But like he’s isn’t this give back stage and it’s a legacy stage. And that’s really beautiful. Great.

Michael Bungay-Stanier That’s exactly right. And you can see how he’s walked. He’s gone his way through those three different phases, like he’s gone through fame and ego. He’s gone through money. And he’s not disassociated from any of that. He’s still there. But, yes, he’s gone. I’m shifting the balance now to make it more about legacy. And I’m kind of I mean, I’m never going to be as famous as Marshall Goldsmith, but, you know, I’ve made enough money to be pretty happy. It amazed, actually. And, you know, I have a low I have a low-cost life. Like, I don’t own a house. I don’t have kids that aren’t in a car at all. My wife and I love small luxuries. So like a decent bottle of wine and some fancy glasses. And I like buying sneakers. I don’t need to earn that much money to kind of afford most of that. So I’m like I’ve always been driven mostly by the legacy piece and that’s been a helpful frame and that’s helped me step away from being CEO of Box of Crayons.

Peter Excellent. So I want to I would be remiss if we if we don’t talk about publishing for a little bit, give it given that you’ve sold the first book or the coaching habit is over seven hundred thousand. I know you have a new book coming out. Yeah. When did the coaching habit come out?

Michael Bungay-Stanier Was that almost four years ago. So it came out on the 29th of February 2016 because I was like, it’s a leap day. That’s awesome. And so.

Peter That’s right. Okay.

Michael Bungay-Stanier And I had a plan, which was, you know, when I didn’t know how successful it’s going to be in most books, don’t sell that many copies. So I was like, you know what? What’s genius about this is in four years’ time, I’ll be able to go. It’s the first birthday of the coaching. Exactly. And I always have. I sold. And the new book comes out also on the 20th into February. So, on the fall, the four-year anniversary.

Peter That’s funny. That’s actually. So, every so you can write a book every year but take time to do it. That’s good. So, for those out there, I would say most out there either have read the book and thought I’d written a book or written multiple books or writing a book.

Michael Bungay-Stanier Yes.

Peter Give us your take on the business side of this one. Know choosing a publisher. Getting the book out there, you know, just give us give us the world according to you. And the reason I listen to you is because A, the books are good and B, they’ve sold.

Michael Bungay-Stanier Yeah. So, I self-published the coaching habit and I’m self-publishing the new book as well. Here’s the thing about writing a book. It is a miserable, miserable experience even of people who like writing books. It’s a miserable experience. If you’re not quite sure if you like, writing books is going to be even more miserable. Your first draft sucks. The second draft is worse than your first draft. Your fourth draft gets it back to the mediocre level of your first draft. Well, I mean, you write draft and the book actually starting to look good. You’re starting to hate yourself. Hate the idea. Hate the book. It is a really hard way to get thought leadership out into the world. There’s lots of other channels writing about to create IP and leadership out in the world. The book has this sort of slightly mythological status.

Peter Yes.

Michael Bungay-Stanier And you know, Peter, you’d probably know this better than most, but most books just don’t sell very many copies.

Peter So, yeah, the stats on that are staggeringly depressing. I think the average business book over its lifespan now, not even initial release is under two thousand. I mean you can you can sample a quarter in one square and you know, that was the guy that stands in his underwear with the guitar and reach that many people in about four minutes.

Michael Bungay-Stanier Yeah. Yeah. So, if you’re writing a book, you’ve got to have a couple of reasons to do it. One is you’re like, I can’t want to write a book and get my name on it. And I’m not attached to trying to sell hundreds of thousands of copies or even tens of thousands of copies. And that’s a great reason to do it. Just like here it is. Here’s a legacy act where I’m like, I can give this to my friends for Christmas gifts for the next 10 years. Sure, sure. The other the other pieces to go and this is where I come from, which is I have a business model of which the book is part of an ecosystem. Because I was saying to myself, even if I sell no copies of this book directly to a consumer, this book becomes the way that I open up conversations with box of crayons clients and hopefully some of them find them. But at the very least, I’m like, let me send you my book. It has just been blurred by famous people. It’s about coaching. You’re looking to buy coaching. And I can build it into the programs that we sell. So there’s a way that this book gets into other people’s hands. And I like this book, which is an investment of somewhere between 50 and 100 thousand dollars. I usually take into account the cost of self-publishing, of working with Page 2, of publicity of all of that sort of stuff. And I’m like I can find I can see a way that I will get that money back.

Peter That’s actually a hard dollar cost, let alone the opportunity cost of how much less work, less speaking, less revenue generating activities. Would you have gone as price probably some multiple of that hundred number.

Michael Bungay-Stanier Yeah, that. So that’s exactly right. And you know, with this book, with the with the coaching habit I can point to not sure if it’s tens of millions of dollars, but it’s north of $5 million in revenue that I can trace directly back to people picking up that book and going I’m calling you and they are putting into a conversation.

Peter Well, the point I wanted to go back to is you went through it quickly and it was it was present. You self-published 700000 self-published books like Whoa that I know. Like you can probably count on one hand, maybe, maybe part of a second. How many have achieved that? I want to understand, what was your underlying decision? Ingoing a more nontraditional route, because I would argue if you chose to particularly coming off the first book, you could have gone to wildly Random House, The Usual Suspects. What drove you to go to self-publish?

Michael Bungay-Stanier Well, the cultural habit was my fifth book. My third book, I think or fourth book was a book could do more great work. It came out 10 years ago and I recently self-published Pretty got picked up by Workman, which is one of the New York publishers. And they kind of republished it. And over its lifetime, it’s done pretty well. It’s like about 100000 copies sold. Yep. And I spent three years pitching them the idea for the coaching habit and they kept going. That’s not quite right. Yes. I kept trying to reinvent the idea. And after three years, I finally went. This is exhausting because they keep saying we like you should go and have another go at it. And I was just running out of ability and I was also just getting really closer to going, “I’m seeing really the essence of what this book must be.” So I sat down with them in 2015 and went, “OK. We’re going to stop. We’re going to stop this this back and forth. Here’s the idea. Here’s the vision for the book. It’s the pitch. It’s a yes or no. And I’ll get to that point where I don’t mind which one it is.” And they went, no, I was like, oh, I do mind. I was hoping you’d say, yes. So I was like I kind of walked away and licked my wounds. Because a part of me was going. My last book with you sold 100000 copies. And I’ve got this eco system. I know. Doing I can market a bit.

Peter Why is this high?

Michael Bungay-Stanier Yeah, me, I’m getting with us and not on the book. But you know what I should know? And so I then went. OK. So I can either get back into the publishing world and I you know, I could have found another publisher. But it will take time. Or I could say, look, I’m going to self-publish. But if I’m going to self-publish, I’m going to do it as a professional. Yes. So the standard is this book can look like it’s a self-published book. So I found a great editor. I called up Seth Godin when Seth. You work with. And he introduced me to Catherine Oliver. I researched a designer and found an award-winning Canadian book designer could end up in Canada. He then introduced me to Page 2, which is the quantum of White Label publisher. They kind of they were like, we’ll do all the work for you. Right. So you’ve got an ISBN number and you’ve got an Amazon listing and you’ve got distribution. All the fun stuff, all the miscellaneous details which would have made me go. I don’t care enough anymore. And they help do all that work to get around to the world. And then and then we had. So the book looks absolutely like an inverted commas, probable and then self-published. And then then the other key thing was I said, I’m letting go of the delusion that I can make it onto any mailing, any kind of bestseller list. I’m committed to pub to market this book for a year. I’m going to be on three to five podcasts every week for a year. And I’m just going to. I was inspired by a dinner I had with David Allen, the Getting Things Done guy years ago, and he said what’s cool about getting things done is sold more. Year on year, every writer since it’s in fact. I went. Now, that is a great measure of success. I’m like, I’m going to spend a year trying to get the flywheel turning on this book. And most publishers of most authors go, I’m going to put it I’m going to go all in on the launch. Hope that I make a splash. And then they typically don’t. And then their book vanishes and they kind of lie down and nap because they’re exhausted.

Peter Right. Or start or start another book or like.

Michael Bungay-Stanier Play the long game. You’re like you put all that work into getting a book going along your game. Yeah, go. Because at the end, halfway through the first year, I’m like, my commitment to market this book is three years. I’m going to just keep talking about this book and talking it and talking about it. And you can guess I’m bored to death of some of the core messages of that.

Peter Right. Right.

Michael Bungay-Stanier Because I’ve asked her about it, I should say. And it’s all part of a commitment to say I’m going to infect a billion people with the possibility virus. Yeah. Therefore, I’m doing what serves that.

Peter Which is the mission piece of it.

Michael Bungay-Stanier Exactly.

Peter Fantastic. So I believe you probably a better human than I am, because if it was me, I would be sending, you know, to the lovely folks at Workmans my Nielsen reports on a monthly basis. Are you doing any anything along those lines? Just anything.

Michael Bungay-Stanier You know what? I am grateful that they turned me down because that turned out to be far better. And, you know, I feel pretty smug about the decision I made. It worked out pretty well for me. So I’m like, I’m. I can’t claim to be that the thought hadn’t crossed my mind to kind of call them up, going, say, I told you. But I’m like, you know what?

Peter I’m see, that’s the difference between a New Yorker and a Canadian right there.

Michael Bungay-Stanier So they say that they either already know about it, in which case they are already looking at other animals and they feel bad about it or they don’t know about it. In which case they don’t care. So either way. So what’s the point?

Peter Well, I was going to say, you know, when was the last time any business but, you know, seven hundred thousand units, not a lot, let alone a self-published one. Of course, this still is. And I think it’s a big mistake. This sort of New York publishing centric look down your, oh, self-published poopoo. You know, that means you’re not good enough. Whatever. And it’s just not true. I think there’s lots of reasons to choose how to publish it. Some of it is financial. By the way, the margins on that, they probably also gave you millions of dollars inadvertently by allowing you to self-publish or like pushing your direction. I’m earning full speed.

Michael Bungay-Stanier You know, I take away probably 4x her book site than I do. Plus, I get to control the book so I can try, experience, control the brand every time every publisher. And I can tweak the call to actions in the book so I can change that around as well. I have no worries about who owns IP or can I publish this or can I do something weird with the audio. I love the freedom it gives me. I mean it coming back to that thought leadership leverage again, which is like I actually have control over my own thought leadership in a way that going with the regular publisher would never give me.

Peter Well, this has been fantastic. We could speak for hours, but we’re going to wrap it here any day. Give us a couple of. No pressure. But final words, final thoughts that might help one person out here get their book to beyond the next level. No pressure.

Michael Bungay-Stanier Sure. Well, OK, people, a resource. A year into this new book coming out and it all goes so well. And I sold almost 200000 copies in the first year, which are on sale so easy. Come believe how? How pleased with that? Pretty damn pleased. I wrote a book. I wrote a long article called How I sold one hundred eighty thousand copies of my book and doubled the size of my business. It’s published on a Web site called Growth Lab, which is run by Ramit Sethi said using another New York he’d made even known PETA. And it’s a long article like 7000 words of all the marketing tools I used and things that work and things that didn’t work to try and get that book out into the world. So if you’re thinking of if you have a book or you’re thinking of writing a book, first of all, I’d say is the time to start thinking about marketing is kind of as you write it could you can start building in stuff that will amplify the marketing in the writing of it. And if you’re going to book out that, then take a look at that article and then maybe some tactics that you might want to pick up.

Peter Excellent. Well, I can’t thank you enough. This has been fantastic. So, so much really good information. I love the transparency and the authenticity and wish you all the best. Michael, thank you so much for joining us tonight.

Michael Bungay-Stanier Peter. Thanks. It’s lovely to talk to you.

If you’ve got the itch to publish a book, get TLL on your team! We’ll help you turn your long-form content from imagination to reality.

Peter Winick has deep expertise in helping those with deep expertise. He is the CEO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Peter on Twitter!

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