Saturday, January 24, 2009

Be effective in tough times and win back trust: Stephen Covey

Stephen R Covey has this knack of delivering the goods in a way that others sit up and listen. When the he penned The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People in 1989, few imagined it would sell 15 million copies worldwide. Even its audio version became the first non-fiction audio-book in US publishing history to sell more than a million copies. With this success, Covey was set for self-help stardom .

Time magazine named him one of the 25 most influential Americans in 1996 and ‘The Chief Executive’ magazine named ‘7 habits’ as the most influential book of the 20th century. Covey followed this chartbuster with The 8th Habit where he observes that effectiveness does not apply to the knowledge-age worker.

Instead, he contends “the challenges and complexity we face today are of a different order of magnitude” . So The 8th Habit prods people to “find your voice and inspire others to find theirs.” His other best-sellers include First Things First and Principle-Centred Leadership.

The 76 year old vice chairman of professional services firm Franklin Covey, who will be in India in a few days time, believes a recession is the right time to gain competitive advantage. Though a bit concerned about the argumentative traits of Indians, he is a great admirer of the country’s spiritualism and believes that if channeled properly, it can lead to the country becoming a global powerhouse again.

As a thought leader, Covey today is the toast of many a government and corporation for advice on managing change, and that includes President-Elect Barrack Obama’s transition team. Having worked with ex-Presidents like Ronald Reagen, George Bush Sr, and Bill Clinton, he is now helping foster a more creative culture in Obama’s team. Excerpts from a candid interview with CD:

How can you be effective in time when negativism is so pervasive ?
This is a perfect time to create long-term competitive advantage . It’s in times like these that people can adapt and make sacrifices . This is really an opportunity for creative businesses to gain long-term competitive advantage. Even if we find that we are not in control of anything, one always has the power of choice to do what one can do.

Every management expert says that tough times should be used to build competitive advantage. But is it easy to think about building competitive advantage when all you are thinking of is survival?

It’s tough because everything around people is negative. When the external factors over which one has no control in a way start to become negative it starts to affect our creative juices. You have to be creative in these times and take advantage of this ‘valley’ and turn it into a ‘peak’ , a new initiative can make a difference and the key to that is to move away from the industrial age model because the industrial age model is top down and command-and-control.

And tough times help unleash the creative force in people’s own professional lives and that feeds upon itself and the creative juices get going again. It’s not easy but it’s within reach. And it’s the perfect time to do so.

Do you believe it was plain greed that was responsible for the present state of many companies?
Yes. People were being rewarded for the wrong things and that leads to greed. It’s an example of using an Industrial Age model in the new Knowledge Worker Age we are in today. We had a risk reward system that bred greed. Today confidence is pretty low, people are becoming very pessimistic and almost paranoid and it dries up all the creative juices within us.

Hasn’t trust been the biggest casualty in recent times?
Exactly. It’s because of misaligned systems. The system rewards people for the wrong things, for not being creative but more on the lines of getting the numbers. And then that’s all that’s in their minds.

This profits vs principles war is seeing the wrong winner in some cases. Do you think there needs to be a rethink on the ‘hows’ of the business?
I think that’s part of it. People have to look up to themselves to begin with - an inside out approach. They must also learn how to involve other people all the way; to involve the entire organisation to look at these issues; to develop systems and structures which reward the right things.

What’s the new model of openness that you are advocating these days?
It involves being clear and transparent. In taking the reality of what is happening with the people and then asking them: What do you think we can do in this situation? You will find that it will work on the basic underlying forces that produce trust and openness. We have had misaligned systems that rewarded people for wrong things and this has been happening all around the world.

This is the perfect time to unleash people’s creative energies and come up with new creative ideas and companies can do this with suppliers and their customers because everybody is feeding on the paranoia and the fear.

It’s like a cancer that feeds upon itself and people get victimised by all these forces. So they criticise, they complain, they compare, they become cynical, they compete. This is the perfect time to take advantage of this and turn it around. And you have to be creative on how to do that and that will be the main challenge.

Why have you focused on habits to bring about change?
Because people co-relate habits of thought and habits of actions which are completely misaligned with these new realities. And it’s like trying to play tennis with a golf club. The habits, not only of people, but also the structures of the system (Covey calls them habits of organisations) of the organisation are misaligned. The result is that people get negative and pessimistic and discouraged and disparaged and that feeds on itself.

(The Economic Times)

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