Stephen Covey – what he wrote is who he was

ImageBefore writing The Art of the Sale, I’d never much cared for Stephen Covey. I found his Seven Habits series preachy, obvious and bland. It was the same reaction I had to two other monstrous bestselling authors of the 20th century, Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale. All three took the techniques and story-telling of the pulpit, lowered the dial on the Christianity to broaden their appeal, and prescribed a universal set of effective habits.

Meeting salespeople, though, changed my view. The techniques of selling, from prospecting to closing and maintaining relationships, are the easy part. The hard part is remaining emotionally and psychologically whole. Being creative and persuasive in a sale is difficult enough. But selling so you can do it again and again requires remarkable degrees of intelligence, resilience and emotional strength.

The most important predictor of sales success I found was role perception, the degree to which people understood and felt comfortable with how and what they sold. If their lives and work were consistent, they thrived. If not, they failed.

Writing about Covey in The Washington Post, the Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen said:

“What he wrote is who he is.”

Covey applied the Seven Habits to his own life, his business, his Mormon faith and his family.

The same applies to selling. If how you sell is who you are, you will succeed. If not, you’ll fail. 

To achieve this goal of work-life consistency, it helps to have a platform, a set of unbreakable habits. For these to work, these must be simple and sturdy. They don’t buckle under pressure or yield to a change in strategy. They are there for you when the waters start to churn. And if you have been disciplined about introducing them into your life, they do their job without you having to think about them.

When I asked Peter Handal, the CEO of the Dale Carnegie Corporation, why Carnegie’s simple messages still formed the basis of a thriving teaching and publishing business, he told me: “They’re common sense, but not common practice.” I discovered later this was exactly how Covey explained his own popularity.

You’d think everyone would just know this stuff, if their parents drummed it into them. But we forget it so easily. Or we can’t be bothered.

Augie Turak, a great salesman I spoke to for The Art of the Sale, told me that people consistently overcomplicate the path to success. His Zen teacher used to say that the first step to spirituality was to walk around the block every evening. Then walk twice around the bloc. Then three times. Then at the same time every night. “People thought it was some kind of metaphor, but it wasn’t. People just don’t do it. They don’t start by just saying, ‘Tomorrow I’m going to be on time for my meetings, and the next day after that.'”

Lucy Kellaway explained Covey’s central insight in the FT last week:

“The reason it has lasted so much better than most self-help books is that its central insight is really rather good. Covey pointed out that the success of all organisations depends on the behaviour of each individual, an idea that is now commonplace, but was novel when the book was published in 1989. What Covey was peddling was a kind of total quality management for the character – as The Economist called it. He eschewed softie miracle fixes, preferring to draw inspiration from Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin, who favoured integrity, courage and patience.”

(Kellaway’s favorite Covey-ism is “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”)

In one of his earliest books, The Spiritual Roots of Human Relations, which provided the intellectual basis for The Seven Habits, Covey wrote:

“The roots of the problems we face in the world, in our national life, and in our family and personal lives are spiritual. The symptom manifestations (leaves) of these problems are social, economic, and political. But the roots are moral and spiritual. And they lie first within each individual and then within the family.”

Later this evolved into his theory of organizations: “We believe that organizational behavior is individual behavior collectivized,” How many organizational experts forget this basic insight, that organizations are merely collections of individuals? Forget the individual, and your organizational theory is bunk.

Covey was also, as Tom Peters wrote, a humanist. “He was a man of the world, and, though in my view an optimist, he was hardly naïve and knew humanity’s darker side.”

This is a surprising rarity among the self-consciously giddy ranks of business thinkers.

The Seven Habits are:

1. Be proactive

2. Begin with the end in mind

3. Put first things first

4. Think “win-win.”

5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood

6. Synergize

7. Sharpen the saw; that is, undergo frequent self-renewal.

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