One of the first self help book I ever bought was ‘The 7 Habits of Highly effective people’, with the earnings from one of my first jobs. The lure of that irresistible title jumped out at me from a passing bookshop window, and before I knew it I had whipped into the shop and was parting with hard earned money to get my copy! Though I didn’t know it then, the book was to be both life affirming and life changing. As we mourn the passing of Stephen Covey (October 24, 1932 – July 16, 2012) it is interesting to share with so many other leaders how they too have been profoundly impacted by Covey’s seminal work.
It’s testimony to the power of his ideas, which have become so mainstream and part of who we are that is hard to imagine how original and insightful his thinking was back in 1989. Stuff like ‘Begin with the end in mind’ might make us think ‘doesn’t everyone do that?’ Possibly lots of people do begin with the end in mind but Covey was the first to articulate this, and so elegantly, and for that alone we owe him a debt of gratitude. Also my addiction to models and quadrants, the origins of which can be traced back to this exact moment in time, must be squarely placed at his feet! Covey never set out to write a management book or a leadership book, but again the power of his ideas translate so well into both these spheres.
What makes Covey immensely readable was his use of stories and parables, to make a point. When he was talking about ‘Paradigm shift’, he explained what that meant through this story. Once when he was traveling in a subway, a man gets in with his two sons, the sons are running all over the place bothering people, this continues, so Covey finally gets irritated enough to ask the father why he doesn’t do something to control his kids. The father replies, “We just got back from the hospital where their mother died. I don’t know how to handle it and I guess they don’t either.”
Suddenly everything you thought about the father and the kids running amok in that instant changes. You understand the family in a completely different way. That is the power of a paradigm shift. When I was reading Covey I wasn’t even sure how to say paradigm (now we all slip into those words like an old pair of comfy pyjamas!). But then the story really helped me understand what a paradigm shift meant and the story has stayed with me, and I continue to use it.
Covey’s ideas endure, where most other management buzzwords have been reduced to dust or a mockery of their old selves. A client recently told us that all that is left of the old BHAGS (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) is the word audacious!
As we look back on his legacy it is interesting to ask where does Covey fit in today’s leadership / self help literature? Is his book still relevant? My mentor Peter Cook helped me understand, how to deal with the tsunami of literature in any area by saying if you want to master a subject for example productivity read a classic like Covey’s 7 habits, a blockbuster like David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ and a current best seller like, Timothy Ferriss’ ‘The 4 hour week’.
I can’t predict what might happen with the blockbuster and the best seller. They both might become classics, but only time will tell. But today Covey’s book alone stands apart as the definitive work on productivity. So if you haven’t read it, it’s time to be proactive (a little ‘in joke’ for people who have read the book as one the principles is to be proactive) and lay your hands on a copy. And if you have read it the best homage you can pay Covey is to re visit it, and decide for yourself, if it has stood the test of time?
It was devastating opening today’s papers and seeing that more job losses have been announced. Whenever I read this I am reminded of an experience I had while working for an e commerce company in South Bank during the days of the dotcom boom and bust. One morning we arrived at work and someone was passing around the daily newspaper that announced 75 jobs were to be axed in our company. It didn’t help that from 8.30 in the morning the entire leadership team and the CEO sat locked up in the board room. No one did a smidgen of work that day, not even a pretence of a smidgen.
All day we were drinking cups of coffee, stressing, searching the internet to find more news and some people were polishing up their resumes and contacting recruiters. At the end of the day at about 5 pm the leadership team came out of the boardroom with a few announcements (strategy I think, can’t even remember). Till someone blurted out ‘What about this?” and pointed to the paper. The CEO waved his hand and said much to everyone’s shock ‘That’s rubbish, surely you would all know that’. NO, no one guessed that it wasn’t true. It was in the papers and most people believe what they see in print. If only the leaders had taken 5 minutes at the start of the day to reassure us what a different experience we might have all had. You could almost hear all credibility for the CEO and his leadership team crumbling.
I also had the exact opposite happen in one of my next jobs in a leading organisation in the city. It felt like just like another day at work when suddenly we were all called in for an emergency meeting. The entire board was there including the chairman who presented some shocking news. They said a string of people who worked in the building had been diagnosed with cancer and the building was suspected of being a cancer cluster. Detailed information was provided on what this meant, what next steps the organisation would take and what people who needed support, advice or counselling would have available to them. There was an extensive Q&A after, and the details of the next meeting made available. The leadership team was both calm and caring. That very evening this was big news on TV and we all felt a sense of relief that we had been informed first, it would have been agonising seeing it on TV first and wondering what it meant for us and our colleagues.
We were all sick with anxiety, imagine living with the worry that something at your workplace could be causing cancer. The very next day (not a week later or a few weeks later) extensive testing of the building started. During the entire period of the testing there were constant town hall meetings, staff meetings, emails and reassurances from all the senior leaders, daily and sometimes more frequently.
You might be thinking that given the seriousness of what was happening every leadership team would get their communication right. Sadly this is not the case. In a strange twist this was also around the time that ABC studios in Brisbane was in the news for the same reason, suspected of being a cancer cluster. The media coverage suggested that the leadership / management team was not as transparent with its communication and was pitted in a quite an adversarial way against the staff.
The reports from our building testing came back and our office building was declared to be all clear. It was a testimony to everyone’s belief in the leadership team, to their honesty and our trust in them, that we moved back into the building and resumed work as normal. The one thing that stood out for all of us, right through the crisis was that the leaders cared. They cared about all of us, about our colleagues who were sick and did their best to share every piece of information they had through constant communication. No one is perfect, and sometimes when they did not have the answers, they acknowledged that and promised to come back to us when they did and then followed through.
Communication in organisations is always challenging, but with crisis communication, the best advice for leaders is do you care? And does your communication show you care?
A client was telling us how she had recently gone to hear Sir Richard Branson speak. It was an interview format but for the first 10 minutes it just was not working. Branson seemed nervous, and wasn’t connecting with the interviewer or the audience. The whole set up was making the audience cringe with embarrassment for both of them. Branson then reached out to pour himself a drink of water. But before he poured himself a glass, he poured a glass of water for the interviewer and handed it to her first . In that macro second all the women in the audience went ‘Aha’ and felt his empathy for the interviewer. The interviewer immediately relaxed and Branson, the interviewer and the audience were off to a roaring start, after a very shaky beginning. My client noted how something so small opened the room and made such a difference.
I was reminded of that again when just recently I was watching some of the ads for ‘The Voice’. Channel 9‘s new reality show and yes I’m a “Voice tragic”! I saw the same thing transpire. Two of the judges Seal and Joel Madden were trying to woo a contestant. Seal said “I believe you”. “I believe you”, how powerful is that, who can resist someone who says that? I thought then Seal would surely win the contestant over, this is done and dusted. Joel Madden stepped in and told the contestant ‘I believe IN you’. The contestant did not even blink and immediately responded from his gut ‘I have to go with Joel”. Just when we thought Joel had surely lost the contestant, the use of a single preposition ‘IN” won him back.
We all know small things matter, but not how much small things can matter and nowhere more so than in leadership. I have never been able to articulate this well without it sounding trite or obvious, till I came across this TED talk (my other addiction, when I’m not watching The Voice!) by Drew Dudley. He talks about ‘Leadership lollipop moments’. He says we have made leadership about changing the world and we have spent so much time celebrating a few things that hardly anyone can do, and feel those are the only things worth celebrating. We devalue the small everyday moments when we are true leaders; we might say something small that has a huge impact on one person without even realizing it. Drew calls these leadership lollipop moments and uses it to redefine leadership. He shares the best story ever to illustrate his point. Watch the video and set yourself the challenge to see how many leadership lollipop moments you can create today?