Management trainer Covey uses his head
But you can probably learn as much about leadership by watching Survivor

Stephen Covey gave a leadership seminar last Thursday to Montreal businessmen. More than 500 tickets were sold at about $500 each, for a total haul of around $250,000. Covey did incur some expenses to run the show like lunch and pastries for everyone. But that still leaves a pretty tidy sum left over.

So how does a guy in a suit with a microphone, gross $250,000 for a day's work? "Mr. Covey does not like to talk about marketing," said a spokesman from Franklin Covey Co., a management-training firm that Covey co-owns. "If you ask him about it he'll say that he does very little marketing and that his book just sold itself."

The book in question is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, of which more than 12 million copies have been sold, making it one of the biggest selling books of all time. Seven Habits, which ten years after its release is still on many business best seller lists made Covey instantly recognizable and propelled much of his success.

The book is a compendium of common sense ideas that have been around since time immemorial. Suggesting that people "Put first things first," "Begin with the end in mind," and concentrate on personal development, is not ground-breaking advice. Covey is by no means the first, or only management trainer to preach these truisms.

In fact much of what Covey teaches is drawn from what he calls the "character ethic" which was prevalent in success literature more than 50 years ago, which stated that the foundation of success is a man's character, which is composed of things like integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance and courage.

Covey labels more recent training, which focuses on social image techniques, and social band-aids as the "personality ethic." Filled with syrupy slogans such as "your attitude determines your altitude," this training can appear to solve problems temporarily, but leave the underlying issues un-addressed. So if what he teaches is not new, why is Covey so successful? A lot of it has to do with good marketing.

Big companies love Covey because he has positioned his training programs to meet their needs, and thus has worked with most of the Fortune 500 at one time or another. This is because he asks employees to look at themselves first, to see what they can do for the organization. "Leadership is not about position," is one of his mantras. This means that employees should be ready to make suggestions to improve the overall organization even if it is their boss who ends up getting the credit. Needless to say this makes bosses who pay for these training programs pretty happy.

But here on planet earth, we live in an era of Bill Clinton and Lucien Bouchard, whose "successive sincerities" are widely perceived to be a large part of their success. It remains an open question whether Covey's techniques are of greater benefit to the companies paying his bills, than to their employees taking his courses.

To get ahead in today's large corporation, where most jobs are hanging on a string, many people instinctively perceive that they can learn more about getting ahead by learning from another corporate trainer: Richard Hatch, winner of the recent CBS Survivor competition which is now in re-runs.

In that series, a group of people were dumped on an island in the Pacific Ocean where cameras recorded their efforts to survive. There they voted each other off, one person each week, with the last survivor picking up a check for $1 million.

Hatch, overweight, out of shape, a little older than the average, was very much an outsider. He did not win any of the competitions, yet, at the end he prevailed by organizing a cabal of misfits. Together, they identified the strongest contestants, and then voted them off the island one at a time.

Their strategy was most evident when they ganged up on Gretchen Cordy, a former U.S. Air force survival school instructor, and mother of two, who was confident, sharp witted and popular and widely touted as the eventual winner. She refused to form strong alliances with other contestants or get involved in island politics.

The Hatch cabal realized that if Cordy hung around, even though her skills could probably help the group, she would eventually walk off with the cash on shear talent and hard work. So they ditched her at the first opportunity.

The Survivor series was popular because it played to what many people instinctively believe: that morals and character are best dealt with in church. In fact it was the defeated survivors, who knew what a snake Hatch was, that eventually voted him the winner.

Nevertheless Covey continues to sell tickets and books. "It's not about me at all," he told me during a break in his presentation. "It's about values, principals and character."

In fact, it is a lot about him. In a world of glitz, hyperbole and plastic solutions, Covey, stands out like a sore thumb. A lot of his marketing has to do with he way he personally exemplifies his character ethic.

At one point he interrupted his sold-out presentation because there were not enough chairs available to accommodate late arrivals. He could have easily ignored their plight, and let his staff handle the situation, as many executives would have done.

His hairstyle is another example. Many executives today are so concerned with appearance over substance that they would view a receding hairline with terror, going to extraordinary expense and surgery to get a decent rug installed on their scalps.

Covey embraces his baldness, and in fact shaves his remaining hair to accentuate it. Ironically since there are so few completely bald business executives it has made him instantly recognizable and his cue ball has become one of his best marketing tools.

Photos: Please use Stephen Covey photo, and also try to find a photo of Richard Hatch from the Survivor series in your photo bank.

E-mail can be sent to Diekmeyer at: peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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