Are there basics – principles – upon which a successful sales career can be built?
Is there a framework for decision making in a sales environment which can help us retain our integrity – and around which we can build a competitive edge?
Steven Covey’s landmark book – “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” – celebrates the 20th anniversary of its original publication this year. The book ushered in a new generation of business and personal development books, and introduced a more structured approach to interpersonal relationships – in business and life more broadly. It exposed an eager audience to ideas and concepts that a myriad of publications over the last 20 years have tried to emulate.
The key lessons from “The 7 Habits” are as relevant today as they were 20 years ago – and good ideas are always worth a review.
Whilst many sales managers would have come across Covey’s work, their younger colleagues and team members may be less familiar with the concepts first introduced in “The 7 Habits”. So, in celebration of its 20th year, this article will review the key concepts of this seminal work, and look at its relevance for salespeople and sales managers 2 decades on*.
What’s the big deal about this book?
They say that timing is everything, and so it is with “The 7 Habits”. To understand the book’s impact, it’s worth considering what was happening at the time it was published. The 1980s had been a transformative period in business, particularly in the US, for a number of reasons. Here are a few:
- A number of established companies – e.g. IBM & Xerox – faced major challenges from emerging rivals, especially from Japan
- It was a decade of downsizing & business re-engineering as the MBA became a moniker of success, and the consultant emerged as the handmaiden of business
- Despite the stock market crash of 1987, M&As and aggressive takeovers continued to the end of the decade
- The personal computer, the fax & the mobile phone moved business to a connected – but, arguably, a less personalised – mode of operation
The movie world recognised the shift in public sentiment toward business behaviour during the decade. Gordon Gekko – the lead character of “Wall Street” (released in 1987) – became the quintessential example of the ruthless businessman (sic), in a decade where the mantra “greed is good” was embraced by aspirational rising stars. Only 3 years later, Richard Gere appeared as a similar type of business character in “Pretty Woman”, and was transformed by his princess from the Black Knight to Prince Charming as he moved from a heartless robber baron to an enlightened leader devoted to re-building America.
It was into this era that Stephen Covey released “The 7 Habits”. Its message is that business is essentially human, and based on a foundation of personal values, rather than a “means justifies the ends” process of personal gain.
It wasn’t just the timing of the message that set this book apart from earlier business books, but the structure which was built around a framework, and which was illustrated by a series of models, charts and graphics. The structure, framework, methodology and “steps” used in “The 7 Habits” have become elements of many business and personal development books since this was published 20 years ago.
Ever since its publication, “The 7 Habits” has faced criticism – essentially on 2 fronts.
Some have said that its folksy message is just common sense. True. Even Covey himself is on record as saying that he didn’t invent the seven habits, and that they are common sense, and that he eschews the mantle of “guru”. But, if you have genuinely embraced the common sense that the book outlines, bravo. Use the book as a reminder of the power that common sense, which is, more often, uncommon, and always easier said than done. Or simply skim it as an historical reference and move forward.
The second common criticism is that the language used in the book is cumbersome and forced – with a tendency to use big words when smaller ones would do. There is some truth in this criticism, too. But, books are products of their times, and perhaps it’s wise to simply accept the language as it is and look instead at the essence of the work – which, in my view – is as relevant today as when first published in 1990.
What lessons do the 7 Habits offer salespeople and sales managers today?
In writing this piece I’ve been reminded of the many phrases and terms which Covey’s book has helped popularise – “win/win”, “synergy”, “being pro-active”, and more.
Many business and personal development book and programs have used these terms since – and it’s easy for them to appear hackneyed and for readers to become somewhat cynical about them – especially if you’ve had the unfortunate experience of being in a company or organisation which has developed a public mantra using these words, whilst privately doing the opposite.
But, it’s worth looking beyond the negative to reflect on the power that lies within the framework of “The 7 Habits”. This is especially so in a sales or sales management role, where we are constantly faced with questions and decisions:
- Does the organisation I sell for share the same ideals, beliefs and values that I do?
- Do I focus on the customer need or push product?
- How do I build client relationships, whilst facing monthly quota pressures?
- How do I say “no” – internally and externally?
- Is it possible to have a great relationship with my sales manager?
Here’s a few ways to apply some aspects of “The 7 Habits” in your sales role, and help answer some of these questions:
- Be proactive.
A successful life in sales and business will be underpinned by your efforts to build knowledge, skills and relationships. Actively design a program which will ensure you attain excellence in these areas. Then learn, commit and do.
From a career perspective – look further to the knowledge and relationships you’ll need for the role(s) you’d like to have in the future. Don’t leave it to chance. Pro-actively develop a plan of action – and put it into action.
- Begin with the ends in mind.
What’s important in your life? What gives you meaning and fulfilment? The clearer you are about these fundamental issues – the better you will cope with the inevitable ups and downs that a sales role delivers. These principles will be an anchor as you negotiate with customers – and with internal partners.
- Put first things first
As salespeople, how we manage our time can be the difference between modest success and truly great results. We need to learn to anticipate issues and ensure our support systems and resources back up our sales efforts. Do this, and we avoid wasting time on the “urgent” issues which constantly distract us from ensuring we continue to build our knowledge and skill base – together with the relationship network – that will sustain our efforts in the long term.
- Think win/win
Yes – it’s become a cliché. But one worth truly understanding. When we move to looking for imaginative and creative ways to work with our prospects, clients and internal partners, we can deliver what they all want – value. It takes time to build the trust that’s required – but time well spent. The essence of sales success is leveraging your (and your organisation’s) knowledge, experience and skills to deliver results for your customers.
- Seek first to understand, then to be understood
This is a classic recommendation for those of us in the world of sales. But how often do we launch into descriptions of what we do and how we can help – without getting to know our clients and prospects?
The problem is that it will take time and commitment on our part. It’s a waste of time expecting people just to take us at face value and launch into a relationship until the foundation of trust has been established. Sometimes this can mean taking more time to profile who we can really work with, and then choose to invest the time and resources to build the relationships with the right people. Not only will they then get what they want – but we’ll have more fun and satisfaction on the journey as well.
Here we have another cliché which has, sadly, lost its original power and impact. (How good IS this Covey guy?) It means applying imagination, knowledge, experience and resources to come up with sales solutions that are solutions in practice – not just in name.
Synergy, innovation and creativity will be essential concepts to ensure success in sales for the foreseeable future. A cliché, perhaps – but one which is absolutely applicable – whatever term you now use to describe it.
- Sharpen the saw
As a salesperson – you are your main asset. Invest in yourself. Make sure that you have a balance in your life and that you attend to the four spheres of your life – physical; social/emotional; spiritual and mental.
Commit to continuous improvement in your personal and professional life, and put into a practice a simple model to do this – learn, commit, do.
The rest of this article will serve as an introduction to “The 7 Habits” by firstly introducing Stephen Covey himself, and then giving a more detailed outline of “The 7 Habits” as outlined 20 years ago.
Steven Covey in his Own Words
Before we look at the book itself, here are some quotes from Stephen Covey which will let him set the scene in his own words:
- Effective leadership is putting first things first. Effective management is discipline, carrying it out.
- Every human has four endowments- self awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom… The power to choose, to respond, to change.
- Live out of your imagination, not your history.
- Public behaviour is merely private character writ large.
- The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.
- The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
- There are three constants in life… change, choice and principles.
- We are not animals. We are not a product of what has happened to us in our past. We have the power of choice.
- We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey**
The “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”– the essential elements
Ultimately, we are all judged by our actions. It’s what we do that makes us who we are. Our actions are at the core of our relationships with others and build the legacy that remains when we’re no longer here on earth.
In order to achieve the best results in our lives – in our personal, family, business and wider social dealings – we all need to have a basis for how we view the world, and then how we build the behavioural habits that lead to the actions we take on a day to day basis.
A paradigm is a way of seeing – a way of making order of our world. Covey suggests that we all need to see things from “inside-out” – not the other way around. In other words, we need to ensure we have a strong internal paradigm upon which to view the world and build our actions in the world. The 7 habits are the framework he suggests to guide our actions. Habits are internalised principles and patterns of behaviour – they are the intersection of knowledge (what and why), skills (how) and desire (what we want to do).
Applied in one’s life, these habits will take an individual on a journey of personal discovery, and continual renewal. The first 3 habits cover the personal – how to achieve personal mastery by moving from a position of dependence to one of independence. The second 3 habits then continue the journey into the public realm, where we move from independence to interdependence. The 7th habit relates to the need to continually invest in ourselves as we maintain and develop our interdependence.
In 2004, Covey added an 8th habit – finding our voice and inspiring others to find theirs. This is fully expanded in his book – “The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness”.
Here’s a brief description of each of the original seven habits:
- Habit 1 – Be Pro-active: principles of personal vision
Although we are all affected by our past – we also need to recognise the need to take responsibility for our own lives. We can choose to focus on what we can influence – or we can be reactive to things which are beyond our control. Rather than allowing life to appear deterministic – that is, we react to what happens – we need to harness the freedom to respond to events by engaging our consciousness and our free will. If we develop a pro-active approach, we will also engage the power of our imagination through self-awareness.
- Habit 2 – Begin with the End in Mind: principles of personal leadership
Habit 1 is about taking responsibility for what you create. Habit 2 is about creating a personal vision for what you want your life to be. Covey describes the importance of centeredness – things we put at the centre of our lives – and how what we choose to put at our centre influences other elements of our life, including our security, our direction or guidance, our wisdom and our power.
Most people centre their lives around one of the following areas: family; money; work; possessions; pleasure; friends; spouse; church or self. Whilst these are, of course, important areas of our lives, they themselves need to be underpinned by values which provide a consistent framework as we live out our lives.
A values base will put these things in perspective and allow us to build goals and a personal mission and vision giving congruence to action.
- Habit 3 – Put First Things First: principles of personal management
How do we achieve the lofty goals and visions we’ve set ourselves in Habit 2? By applying the lessons in Habit 3, we can physically create the world we envisioned.
Habit 3 is about time management – about determining what we need to do to achieve our goals and mission. It’s about turning goals into plans and plans into actions. Covey outlines a simple 2×2 time management matrix. One axis is important v not important; the second axis is urgent v not urgent. As a result we end up with the following four quadrants:
Quadrant 1 is urgent and important – crises, pressing problems and projects, and activities with deadlines.
Quadrant 2 is not urgent, but important – planning, relationship building, looking for opportunity, prevention, recreation, building our knowledge and capacity.
Quadrant 3 is urgent, but not important – interruptions, some correspondence, some meetings and popular activities.
Quadrant 4 are things which are neither urgent, nor important – trivia, time wasting activities and stuff that simply sucks away your time without delivering any value.
The key, according to Covey, is to move the bulk of our time and effort from Quadrant 1 to Quadrant 2. This move – which can be done by diligent planning, delegation and selection, will free us up to concentrate more time on our goals and visions.
- Habit 4 – Think Win-Win: principles of interpersonal leadership
In any interaction between people – be it personal, family, business or social – there are six ways a person can approach the situation. We can think of the outcome as being win/win, win/lose, lose/win, lose/lose, win, or win/win or no deal.
The chapter examines these different approaches, and concludes, not surprisingly, that approaching interactions with a win/win approach will produce better outcomes for all involved. Thinking win/win is beyond thinking my way or your way – but looking for a better way.
There are 5 dimensions of a win/win approach which need to be developed for the approach to have long term success. Simply, personal character will lead to relationships which will result in win/win agreements. However, these three elements also need to be supported by appropriate systems and processes.
In the process of achieving a win/win outcome, the process will require the following five elements to be made explicit: the desired results need to be made concrete; there needs to be agreed guidelines; appropriate resources will need to be available; both parties need to be accountable and aware of the consequences of action (or inaction).
- Habit 5 – Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood: principles of empathic communication
This simple habit is one which applies in all interactions. It’s one which has been espoused by communication specialists for eons. Take a genuine interest in others who you come into contact with. Look to hear their story. Listen actively.
Take time to understand. Don’t push – be patient and respectful. Relationships are built on trust and trust can only be established with mutual understanding.
- Habit 6 – Synergise: principles of creative co-operation
Habit 6 looks to maximise the win/win approach by combining the efforts, power and positive energy of people who come together in order to get something else done, and to multiply the value all parties bring to any interaction.
In the process of achieving the positive outcomes of win/win situations, we need to move from a defensive style of communication (win/lose or lose/win), through respectful communication (which is based on compromise) to the synergistic outcomes which a genuine win/win approach delivers.
Synergy is creative, and a paradigm approach which looks for an outcome where 1+1 can equal much more than 2. But it requires high levels of co-operation and trust. It means looking for different ways to approach an issue where better outcomes can be achieved for all involved.
- Habit 7 – Sharpen the Saw; principles of renewal
To get increasingly better personal outcomes, we all need to continually invest in our prime asset – ourselves.
Personal renewal needs to occur across the four dimensions of your nature: physical (exercise, nutrition, etc); social/emotional (empathy, service, security, synergy, etc); spiritual (values, study, commitment, meditation, etc) and mental (reading, planning, writing, etc).
Renewal is the principle that encourages us all to move on an upward spiral of growth, change and continuous improvement.
A simple 3 step model describes the process – learn, commit, do.
In summary, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” provides a framework to allow all of us to gain more from life by applying a principled based model to our actions. We address our personal victory by being pro-active in our approach to life, beginning with the end in mind, and putting first things first. These steps develop independence.
We then move to the public sphere by thinking win/win, looking to understand others, and then seeking to harness the power that lies in synergistic approaches to relationships and endeavours.
And – of course – we commit to a life of change, learning and continuous improvement.
20 years on, the book remains one worthy of the time you’ll invest in reading – or re-reading it. Enjoy.
*My Australian copy notes the book as being first published in 1990. The copyright is 1989, which has led some to say that it was first published in 1989. Perhaps it was in other markets.
**The quotes in the article – and more – can be found here: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/s/stephen_covey.html
“The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is readily available at most bookshops. It’s sold millions – so you’ll easily find a recycled, low-cost copy. There are no excuses to not read this classic!
If you want to find out more about Steven Covey, here’s his web-site:
Thanks for reading this post – Paul Sparks, Sales Effectiveness Australasia.
“Taking you beyond sales training and keeping you informed about the latest ideas, trends, innovation, research & best practice in professional selling and sales management”
If you would like to connect with Paul Sparks please email paulsparks [at] saleseffectiveness.com.au