Habel Quoted In Article About Stephen Covey

Habel Quoted In Article About Stephen Covey

Stephen Covey has acquired a “cult” status in this country. His teachings have affected many people, including CBC’s own George Habel, who shares some of his thoughts with Sarah Avery from the News and Observer.

Story from the News and Observer Web Site: February 13, 2000

The cult of Covey

Stephen Covey has created a self-help empire with his guide to developing leadership skills.
News and Observer Staff Writer

Knight Ridder Newspapers

What struck George Habel was about as simple a notion as a pop fly to left field. Habel, vice president and general manager of the Durham Bulls, had read his share of business leadership books, but when he read Stephen R. Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People” eight or nine years ago, it was as if that fly ball konked him in the head and he came to with 20/20 vision. “It was just the idea of getting clear on priorities and attempting to manage those, and keeping everything in balance,” Habel says. “It made a lot of sense to me.”

Revelations are like that: Simple ideas that hit hard and true. And if ever there were a power hitter of epiphany pop flies, it is Covey. The 65-year-old former professor has a following the likes of which haven’t been seen this side of Dale Carnegie. Espousing simple platitudes for developing leadership skills, his “Seven Habits” book has sold 13 million copies since its release in 1989, making it one of the 10 most successful business books of the decade. He now has a book promoting highly successful families, and highly successful teens.

Beyond that, Covey has built a multimillion- dollar empire through his Franklin Covey company. There are tapes, time management calendars, seminars, videos and assorted other gew-gaws available at 120 Franklin Covey stores nationwide, including one at Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh. On Monday, he’ll appear before a sellout crowd at the Carolina Theater in Durham, and Habel will be there with five of his top managers.

Since first reading Covey, Habel says, he’s become a major-league fan. He’s bought countless Covey books as gifts to friends and colleagues at Capital Broadcasting, which owns the Bulls. He’s used Covey’s ideas in staff meetings. He’s seen fit to pay $389 per person for Covey’s lecture in Durham — money well spent. “It’s an investment,” he says. And it’s an investment thousands of people are making, not just here, but everywhere. It’s one thing to read about successful habits, another to spend a day under the tutelage of the man who gave the world “win-win” situations and “circles of influence,” along with the fortitude to “sharpen the saws.” But just what is it that Covey is talking about? And why are so many business people rapt?

‘The message just hit me’

Larry Tilley knows. Never one for sis-boom-bah business leadership pep rallies, Tilley came to Covey reluctantly. He is the third-generation owner of Acme Plumbing & Heating in Durham and, as such, was fully prepared to walk in, sit down and take over from his dad, who was retiring in the mid-1990s. But it turned out to be a lot tougher than he thought it would be. He says he had trouble establishing himself as a leader. He didn’t quite know how to take charge, to be the boss. “My father was sort of the old school — buck up and figure it out for yourself,” Tilley says.

Then somebody — he doesn’t remember who — suggested he read Covey’s “Seven Habits.” He remembers exactly what happened next. “The message just hit me square between the eyes,” Tilley says. “Nothing else has come as close to the effect this book had on me.” Foremost among Covey’s messages, Tilley says, was the recommendation to seek “win-win” solutions to problems, not so much reaching compromise but truly coming to mutually beneficial terms by listening to and understanding other people. It was a practical suggestion, obvious even, but Tilley says it helped him see that he had to be active as a leader, not just hold a title. Tilley says he also felt liberated by Covey’s suggestion to plan ahead, but not so rigidly that common problems and interruptions throughout the day become major setbacks. Using Covey’s system of triage — assigning problems to one of four categories of urgency — Tilley says he was able to get a fix on what was important and what was frivolous.

Among those things that Covey assigns importance is family, and he encourages people to “sharpen the saw” when it comes to such priorities. Translation: Just lop off the junk that gets in the way. That struck a major chord in Tilley. “As a business owner, or anybody who is trying to accomplish something at work, you tend to place a lot of focus on that,” Tilley says. “And the people you love most you push off or take for granted and say you’ll do this or that ‘sometime.’ And ‘sometime’ never gets here.” Tilley began making dates with his children, who are now 16 and 13.

Habel, the Durham Bulls vice president, says he was struck by that same notion of making time for family. In managing his time, he used to ignore everything outside the job. He says he was deeply affected by Covey’s suggestion to take a good, hard look in the mirror and ask some tough questions. “He has you define your roles as husband, as father, as leader, as manager,” Habel says. “This whole idea that you kind of separate those out and decide how you want to be is very powerful. I guess I did make changes, but the important thing was probably to break things down and set goals in those areas.”

The message has company

The kind of advice Covey offers is far from revolutionary, and sort of rewords old chestnuts such as “the early bird gets the worm,” or “treat others as you would want others to treat you.” His followers say that’s the appeal. “Some of the issues may be seen as common sense, but they obviously must not be too common, or everyone would already be applying them,” says Keith Elkins, director of marketing communications for Lessons in Leadership, which handles Covey’s university appearances. “The issue of leadership is an ongoing challenge. People are always looking to develop the kind of skills that will serve them well in the future.”

Covey’s message — his emphasis on family, on ethics, on doing what’s right — was the right tone at the right time, coming at the heels of the Gordon Gekko ’80s and that decade’s savings-and-loan debacle, junk-bond mergers and stock-market crash. Now, he’s far from alone in making such appeals to moral leadership. Today’s hottest business books read like self-help tomes about proper balance, with titles such as: “Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life”; “How to Get What You Want and Want What You Have: A Practical and Spiritual Guide to Personal Success”; and “Organizing from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System of Organizing Your Home, Your Office and Your Life.”

And there are other signs that Covey’s dominance may be on the wane. His company, Franklin Covey, saw fiscal 1999 sales rise only 2 percent last year to $555 million, while earnings fell 94 percent to $4.4 million. What’s more, layoffs came on the heels of a management shakeup that left Covey and his partner, Hyrum W. Smith, in diminished roles. The moves prompted a BusinessWeek headline: “Gurus who failed their own course: Covey and Smith merged their companies — and now need help.”

But such practice-what-you-preach pitfalls seldom dissuade the faithful. For those who have been touched by Covey’s particular brand of fire-and-brimstone business message, the impact is lasting. The message has not only rhetorical meaning, it has applied meaning. “As you use his philosophies, you start noticing a subtle impact,” says Cindy Mease, a Covey enthusiast who has incorporated his teaching into her work as regional operations manager for Irwin Mortgage in Raleigh.

“Sometimes you don’t even realize the ways in which it’s helping you.” Tilley, who rereads “Seven Habits” to keep refreshed, says he’s struck by how deeply Covey has affected him. “I’m a middle-aged guy, 44 years old, and have struggled with a lot of things spiritually and so forth,” he says. “There’s a spiritual side to this. It’s not overt, if you will. It’s not prescriptive. He’s not saying you need to do this or that or the other. But he addresses some of the spiritual needs. “For me, it has been an epiphany.”

News and Observer staff writer Sarah Avery
can be reached at 829-4882 or savery@nando.com

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