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In the spotlight: Stephen Covey


Leadership expert Stephen Covey tells LeadershipZone how organisations can change company culture to empower employees and improve performance.

Citizen brands aren’t just good social citizens to the community at large – they also have to be good servants to those people within the organisation itself. And in case businesses needed any greater incentive, evidence shows that an engaged and empowered workforce leads to an engaged customer base.
As someone who has dedicated his life to demonstrating how anybody - at any level - can be a leader if they receive the right guidance, Stephen Covey most certainly supports any attempt to empower employees. Recognised as one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential Americans, Dr Covey has sold over 20 million books over the last four decades, including The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which was named the most influential business book of the 20th century.
He has seen the business landscape change dramatically over this time, with the emergence of new technologies, and new ways of working. But the path to empowering people to take more and more responsibility has remained largely the same - even though this has been traditionally overlooked by entrenched business models.
“The industrial age model is kind of a top-down hierarchal command and control model and it doesn’t develop widespread competency throughout the organisation," he explains. "The knowledge worker age, which we’re in now, means that you create a culture where competency is spread everywhere, and where the people, even at the bottom, are involved significantly in discussing key business decisions. That takes a little more time and patience, but gradually once you get this kind of a culture, they produce alternative solutions to problems, which means it is not just ‘your way’ or ‘my way’, it is ‘our way’. And that is very bonding to people when they experience that.”
This culture change can have enormous implications, and not only for the employees. “It starts to affect customers and also business partners, including suppliers,” continues Covey. "If employees are dealing with a supplier or a customer whilst using the industrial age model, they are not normally able to make decisions. Compare that to someone at the same level who can make decisions and carry the responsibility of that kind of leadership."
With customer service more important than ever in a recession, this means the issue is now increasingly related to overall competitiveness - and Covey has several examples of businesses that persisted with dated models of leadership to their detriment. "Xerox almost went under until it had a leader who came in and started to empower the entire organisation," he highlights. "Look what happened to Polaroid - it went under because it couldn't do this and Canon took over the photographic business."


Culture of trust

Empowerment, of course, has emerged as a prime business buzz word for gurus in recent years. Ken Blanchard, for instance, has spoken of empowering employees so that they “soar like eagles” rather than “quack like ducks”. Empowerment, for Covey, represents a combination of communicating, educating, resourcing and guiding. But it also requires a culture of trust. In the past Covey has written that if you don’t have trust of your team then you have to control them, but through high trust they supervise themselves. “You become a source of help. You set up a performance agreement so they understand what's expected. You overlap their needs with the needs of the organisation.”

Technology also has a role to play within the empowered organisation, particularly in light of the emergence of social networking tools which have opened up new channels of communication. Covey sees real value in this, and indeed last year he launched The Stephen Covey Online Community, a collection of online courses, goal management and social networking, which he uses to teach his most recent thoughts and ideas on current topics and self leadership.
But he also warns that technology can be a double-edged sword.
“Technology is a good servant, but a bad master,” he says. “I have seen organisations get consumed by technology and hardly even have normal interactions between people. But when they realise what is strategically very important then technology plays a definite and significant role in accomplishing that. They have to learn to separate out the kind of technology that just adds information but doesn’t have any strategic relevance. One of the principles in Predictable Results in Unpredictable Times is the idea of executing with excellence, and technology is important but it is not the most vital thing. The key thing is the culture – people really deeply buying into it, going throughout the whole organisation including those at the so-called bottom.”

Changing culture

Nevertheless, Covey concedes that changing cultures isn’t something that happens overnight. And despite the shortcomings of the command and control model, some organisations have operated under this principle for so long that to break away can prove extremely challenging.

“The traditional industrial age model is what I call a ‘sandwich technique’, where a boss comes in and says a few nice words and then sticks in a knife and twists it a few times - called ‘areas for improvement’ - and then says a few nice words at the end. But that is an obsolete concept now. In fact, once people have found their voice with this empowered approach, they don’t need supervision. The traditional carrot and stick approach of motivation is obsolete.
“However, people have emotionally bought into the old industrial age model and they become co-dependent on it,” he concludes. “They don’t want to carry responsibility and they don’t want leadership. But little by little, when the people are the very top are committed to this concept of producing leadership throughout, and they stay with it, little by little it begins to happen. When people feel empowered they will never go back to the old way. They get involved in strategic decisions. And it is a different world for them.”

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