Stephen Covey Interview

By Andre Ribeiro
Andre Ribeiro

Stephen R. Covey was a world renowned author on leadership and organizational consultant. He was the author of several books and known mainly by the bestseller "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People". He received several awards, including being named one of 25 most influential Americans by Time magazine.

Covey had a Harvard MBA and has spent part of his career at the Brigham Young University where he got his doctorate and became a professor. He has co-founded the Franklin-Covey organization, dedicated to the implementation of the Covey principle-centered approach.

He was known as one of the leading authorities on time management. Thousands of organizations worldwide, including many Fortune 500 companies have adopted his innovative techniques on leadership, teamwork and customer focused service. HIs time management bestseller "First Things First", co-authored with A. Roger and Rebbeca R. Merrill, according to publisher Simon & Schuster is the biggest bestseller ever, on time management.

Edited Interview Transcript:

Yesterday I heard your audio book "The Eighth Habit."
Stephen Covey - Well, really? It's really long.

Yes, it lasts about eight hours, it's long. I like your voice, in the audio it sounds very deep.
S.C. Thank You.

Attraction versus seeking what you want. Shall we practice both? Eastern philosophy seems more geared toward attracting, while the West prefers to search. What is your opinion?
S.C. Well, I think there is value in both have something good. Sometimes I use the word "discover, develop, ..." and also "detect", which is more the attraction.

In other words, when Victor Frankl was in the death camps he asked himself the question: "What need can I serve?" It changed his paradigm. Instead of saying "Why me?". When he found someone who was starving, he would share half of his ration with him. Give his life meaning, felt like he had more life.

Different words are used to describe how people find their voice. Sometimes they just go out, and get an education and starts to discover it. Sometimes they go to work. I, myself, was supposed to go into business. But someone got me involved in leadership development and it changed me. I told my father: "I rather be a teacher." All my life he said: "If you can do it you do it, if you can't, you teach." But then he told me that he never found his voice in business either.

About systems thinking and leverage points, can you mention some leverage points that an individual can use to change society and business?
S.C. One leverage point is inside out. Don't try to change anyone else. It's like in marriage,. Make your spouse happy, not better. So leverage is something of which you can control, something inside yourself. And that does more to model or inspire change in the part of someone else than anything else.

Another powerful leverage point is to develop rituals or habits that you cultivate like sharpening the saw everyday. I try to exercise regularly every day, if I can. It renews you and it gives you more balance in your life. This is a key leverage point.

Another key leverage point is to always listen first.

How do you renew your mind?
S.C. -Study. Systematic Study. Read materials outside my field. My wife thinks I should read more novels, but, I read more theory.

I also love interaction with audiences. If were my choice, I would spend most of my time interacting with audiences. Walking around and asking them to challenge me.

Many people probably know what they don't want, but sometimes they don't know what they do want. How can we assist people in getting to know what they really want?
S.C. Teach them about the conscious. Peace of counscious is greater than peace of mind. Peace of mind is more externally oriented. You know, you pay off your mortgage. Peace of consciousness is when you know you have been honest in all your business dealings. You are true to your wife. You are dedicated with your children. You know it in your heart. The stillness in my voice is more powerful than storms or anything else that is large, noisy and powerful. Peace of counscious. The more people train their counsciousness, the more sensitivie they are to it. It's like you had your own voice coming to you.

Coming back to systems thinking we said that we must work on the inner voice to change the system. But many people say, "Yeah, I have changed, but the system doesn't change".
S.C. They are still in outside/in orientation ...

They would like to change for example their jobs...
S.C. I'd say work in your circle of influence. Try to enlarge it, because is nothing that converts cynics like results. Then..., go to the person that can change the system and say, "Why don't we try a pilot program?", just a small program. Which changes a system, for example for me. And then see which results come from it. Pilot programs are very easy to sell, extremelly easy, because there is so little downside and huge upside. And the boss says "I'm just experimenting" and then it works.

What about people who tell you have to make a living, you have to make an effort everyday, and they see everything as demanding. They have to work, to live and get paid. They say they can not study or develop because they are too busy?
S.C. The're experiencing distress. They are being stressed, that's why they are not willing to do anything else, they cop out. That's why they give excuses like you're talking about. The eustress is somewhat different: the eu-stress, is stress that turns you on, something you are passionate about, that strengthens your inner system, that causes you to get up earlier, it gets you to study. You'll love it because you will have a meaningful work to do, you would have people you have to bless, you want a cause to be furthered that's eustress. That's why women live longer than men, because they have eustress. Seve years longer than men, on average. It's not physiological it's psychologica. Eustress ... a woman's work is never done.

And that change happens? Does it happen suddenly or gradually? Or both ways?
S.C. Both ways. Sometimes it's an epiphany, all at once. When I started teaching I realized that I had never had such a level of satisfaction and such a feeling of fulfillment and sense of contribution. Just like that. But, usually it's more cumulative, slow, evolutionary and less revolutionary.

In "The Seven Habits" (book) you mention the classic example of people going to the gym a couple of weeks and then leave.
S.C. I was working with one person, one time. She was in charge of human resources department of a large company. She said that just the thought of abundance rather than scarcity changed her whole life. She said "I never even considered the idea of abundance and scarcity. I realized I had been scarce all my life. I had no emotional attachment to scarcity, it was just a habit From then on I always thought of abundance." That was an epiphany, that she had.

In this society of scarcity, do you think there are abundant companies and cultures?
S.C. Yes, absolutely. For instance, take Dell Computers. It took them five years to create what they call a culture of responsibility rather than a culture of blame. What they meant by responsibility is that if I see a problem, I'm responsible to solve it, one way or another. In other words, the whole culture will be abundant t and will respond to my efforts to solve the problems, because culture is based on the responsibility for everybody, meaning an abundance of opportunities. It took five years to develop that.

Look how long it took GE, Jack Welch , to produce that leadership process so that it was distributed throughout the whole organization. About seven to ten years. Now they are the number one or number two in every category.

You've talked about principles and values, what about beliefs?
S.C. Belief is another word for paradigm. It's a synonymous. Your belief of the way things are. Values are the way things should be, it's a paradigm of the way things should be. Beliefs are the paradigms of the way things are.

Referring to the compass, where is the "True North"?
S.C. True North represents two things. One the chosen direction we decided to go in. In other words, if we are emotionally connected as is the culture, this is our purpose, this is our high priority, this is our governing values. That's one sense of it.

The other sense of it that the principles govern, we don't govern. The principles govern. We are driven by our values. The principles drive the consequences, over which we have no control. That causes humility. Humility is the greatest virtue there is, greater than any other one Humility is the mother, courage the father, integrity the child.

What would you suggest to someone who wants to be more creative? Everybody is talking about innovation. How can one be more creative?
S.C. I would say first the have to get out of the social definition that they are not. creative Everybody is creative. Particularly children, are true geniuses. Then adults de-genialize them out of their creativity. You always learn to ask questions. Why not? What is another way of doing it? What you and I producing an alternative that either of us can think of right now? So, if we are in opposition to each other, let's come up with a third alternative. Then we start looking this way instead of to each other, and we ask: "What else can we do? What about this? ". Gradually as people have experiences in creating things, they say "This is fun! This it bondy! ". Because nothing will bond people more than creating something together. You will never be desloyal to a person behind their back when you've created something with them, because it was too rich of an experience, it was too powerful. It would be like violating your whole integrity, to be desloyal to someone behind their back. Nothing is more bonding that creating something together.

What about the learning system, such as universities, MBAs. Do you see any change, an evolution?
S.C. Definitely. It's evolving towards interdependence, teamwork instead of dependence or independence. Independence is a high value. And at the Harvard Business School I never learned about interdependence, it was all independence. Now you go to the University of Michigan and they start you out in the ghetto with a team, to serve the ghetto. For the first two weeks of your whole training. So you learn. Wait a minute, life is a social ecology, we are all connected together, we are in the same boat, same polar horizon direction. That 's the first thing.

Second thing, we must start teaching people emotional intelligence. More how to listen to people in depth. How to be aware of yourself, what motivates you. Where are your talents, what I call your voice.

Another thing that is changing is teaching global intelligence, awareness of the total package, the larger context in which to operate.

Another is teaching the power of what I was talking about today: intellectual capital and social capital, the importance of trust.

But I would say that there are many organizations that are far ahead most MBA programs. The MBA is following, not leading. They should lead. The same thing with law. I'm now writing a book for lawyers and I hope we get that to education. I'm writing with two other people, I am not a lawyer but these two are: one is a federal judge, the other a general counsel. It's all on synergy and the prevention of dispute. It's for peace makers. Tomorrow will participate on negotiations. He and I have interacted a lot over the years. He believes very strongly in the power of finding better alternatives a "we" solution instead of "my solution" or a compromise solution.

Regarding the world of training, consulting and coaching, there are many things going on. Here in Spain, for example, there is like an explosion of coaching. Companies are already a bit tired of the traditional training. They want the results, as you say, sometimes there's a lift on morale and then in a few days or weeks, the effects begin to disappear. How do you see this coaching world and training world in general?
S.C. I think the reason that things tend to fall back after the training is given is that the structures and systems have not been changed, so you don't have the candle burning. So, gradually people are socialized or inculturated back to the old way so of doing things, even tough they were trained in better ways of doing things.

I think that coaching is more like being with a trusted advisor. Who really spends the first effort to understand you and he gets deeper into you, because you feel understood. Instead of kind of outside in, which training is, it's more from the inside out. In fact, the very word educate is an inside out word, it means "comes from within." Coaching and trusted advising is based on drawing out the very best out of a person. So instead of saying "You should do this" I would say "Tell me about yourself. Tell me what are your interests. Tell me what gives your life meaning. " Now if you feel like I understand you, then you would say to me: "Stephen, what do you thing the options are in terms of my interests?". Now I am a trusted advisor to you, because you know I understand.

With training it is all external. I am telling you what to do. And you may say: "Yeah, but you don't quite know my situation or know me." It is more efficient but less effective.

Neuro-linguistic programming and Gestalt therapy, what you think about these concepts?
S.C. I think they have merit. But I would give my primary emphasis on integrity, courage and humility. Rather than learning to manipulate my mind. I think that it's good to know how to visualize, and affirm and to tackle the regions of your brain. So that you have the kind of the habit patterns built. Trough neuro-linguistic programming and Gestalt therapy, I think that is good. But, I would say the highest value I will put on character.

I belive that 90% of all leadership failures are failures of character. Not failures of ability. Or the inability to manipulate your own mind. I spoke to a conference of neuro-linguistic conference on this topic, one time. And I suggested that for every thousand hacking of the leaves, there is one striking of the root. The problem isn't so much how to manipulate your mind to get better results. The big problem is to live by your conscience. The character. Character ethics is the one that gets neglected the most.

The time management matrix, the second quadrant. What would be some pragmatic steps to implement the teachings of the time management matrix?
S.C. I'd say first develop a personal mission statement, so that you know what is important to you. The moment you do that, you can get rid of quadrants three and four.

Most people are not even the first step.
S.C. They don't ever reach the first step. They have the ability to say "no". If they do say "no", they are guilt tripped. And so they say "no" unhappingly, instead of cheerfully saying "no" because you know what's really important to you. You can learn to say "no", only when you have a very burning "yes" inside you about what's really important.

What about the importance of having a focus, which is directly related to that? Sometimes we have a clear goal, but then there are changes along the path, and so the purpose, the mission changed a bit trough the way. How can we keep the focus, as in life there are many things which distract us?
S.C. I think you have to be flexible and adapt to changing realities. But your governing values never change. You would never compromise your integrity for anything, for any purpose. Your purpose may change slightly, as you mature and your consciousness expands and you see more of the social ecology. You may get more clarity and focus on your purpose.

It has happened in our family. We rewritten our family mission statement four times and it gives us a more clearer focus. It happens in organizations as well. But the governing values are usually the same. Sometimes you mature you only add two or three more, you don't want to have too many ,you don't need too many.

Because there are only four areas in life (body, mind, heart and spirit). They pretty well embrace all of life. I can not think of on thing that doesn't come under one of those four things.

I would say you're flexible, but you are also very resolute about your purpose and your governing values, but you are always open to learn, grow and mature.

There's a lot of talk about the power of now, living in the present - something that comes from thousands of years ago - what would you say about that?
S.C. There is a lot to that. You don't let yourself worry too much about the future, and you don't have to be depressed about the mistakes you made in the past, otherwise tomorrow is held hostage by yesterday.

I think there is great value in vision. Which means you see the potential that has not been yet actualized. That drives the now. If you are too now oriented, you will be driven to quadrant three that which is urgent but not important.

I think we have to be now be oriented in the sense that if we think always about tomorrow and don't focus on today or yesterday. Decisions in the now should be governed by your vision.

The way I put it is: Vision is the breakfast of champions, feedback the lunch and self-correction the dinner.

André Ribeiro is the founder of ExtraCoaching. He is an executive advisor and facilitates coaching and training for trainers, coaches, executives and other professionals. Visit www.extracoaching.com