In Covey We Trust

A tribute to Dr. Stephen Covey—an inspirational teacher and leader who left a tremendous legacy to the training industry and the world at large.

By Lorri Freifeld

He taught us how to be effective. He taught us how to inspire trust. He taught us how to be better leaders. And although he sadly passed away a few months ago, Dr. Stephen Covey’s legacy to the training industry and the world at large will continue to live on.

A motivational speaker and former business management professor at Brigham Young University, Dr. Covey gained worldwide fame in 1989 when his book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” became a bestseller and went on to sell more than 25 million copies worldwide. His later books included “The 8th Habit,” “Predictable Results in Unpredictable Times,” “Great Work, Great Career, ” and “The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems.”

Born in 1932 in Salt Lake City, UT, Dr. Covey earned a Master’s degree in business administration from Harvard and a doctorate from Brigham Young University after getting a Bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Utah. He founded Covey Leadership Center, which later became FranklinCovey Co. after merging with Franklin Quest in 1997. In 1996, he was named one of Time magazine’s 25 Most Influential Americans.

In 2010, Dr. Covey gave a two-hour interview to Training magazine, touching on subjects ranging from leadership development and risk-taking to social networking and employee motivation. One of his most memorable responses came to the query: What is the most difficult question about employee training and/or motivation you’ve ever been asked?

His reply—which continues to resonate today—was: “The toughest question I’ve been asked is: ‘How do you motivate people who have little interest in their work and are disengaged? They have a surly attitude toward management and just don’t care.’

“My response was to listen to them empathically. You have to make it safe so they feel authentic and real. Leaders’ natural tendency is not to listen but to tell. So they don’t get real answers and wonder why people aren’t committed. Help your people find their voice and what they are good at. Ask them: ‘From your earliest memory, what did you like to do and do well?’ Often, they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear. Tell them you want to know what they want. Typically, people lose their identity because they are compared to other people. They’ve never really thought deeply about what they want to do. When man found the mirror, he began to lose his soul because he became too concerned with his external image.”

Dr. Covey followed up that interview with a keynote address to a packed room at the 2010 Training Conference & Expo, which struck a chord with several 2012 Training Top 125ers and Hall of Famers. We asked a few of them and others to share their favorite memories and teachings of Dr. Covey in the following tribute:

“When I was in graduate school (2003-2005), I was asked to draw upon my hotel management experience to plan and teach an undergraduate hotel management class about effective leadership, while fulfilling my practicum requirement. Instead of preaching about what I and others have done, I decided to allow the students to discover their own passions and leadership skills/traits by focusing each class on one chapter of Dr. Covey’s ‘7 Habits.’ I had them read the next week’s chapter and then I would review the highlights the following week and facilitate activities to draw out the students’ strengths and connect them to effective leadership.

Although the purpose was to teach them Dr. Covey’s Habits, I ended up learning so much more myself! Instead of just having the book on my bookshelf, I truly started living and communicating the Habits after the semester ended. In fact, I just ‘assigned’ my sister to read the book. She is re-entering the workforce after several years away and I felt it would help her identify her talents for her resumé and better prepare her for interviews, jobs, and new colleagues.

When Dr. Covey was introduced at the 2010 Training Conference & Expo, I was so pleasantly surprised! I listened intently and hung on his every word. When we took a break, I saw no one was talking to him, so I headed over. Although my intent was to be friendly and respectful to a fellow public speaker, the result was quite different…

I was going to tell him how much I enjoyed his talk and thank him for taking the time to speak with us—you know, the general comments we usually get as speakers. But to this day, I cannot recall what happened when I reached him. I must have been so overwhelmed with meeting my, yet to be known hero, that I was speechless! I think I mumbled something, but I cannot recall what it was or if I did. However, within seconds, Dr. Covey simply hugged me! Not just a quick, polite hug, but a genuinely warm, long hug. The tears I felt brimming then are returning while I’m writing this. It was one of the most incredible moments of my professional career.

I am truly grateful for the wisdom he has shown us over the years.”

—Michelle R. Srebnik , Specialist, COLE Training & Development, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital

“My favorite memory of Stephen Covey isn’t what you might think. It occurred during a sacred walk in New Mexico in 1998. Stephen was honored as a Peace Award recipient, for Peace Prayer Day in Española, NM. He came to the ceremony and participated in the beautiful healing walk—done barefoot walking a spiral path on ancient native land while chanting a sacred song. We were on the path together, each individually absorbed in our meditations. However, I remember thinking: This man really does ‘walk his talk.’ I later reminded him of this experience when we met up several years later in San Diego at a lunch for Training Top 125 recipients.”

—Krishna Khalsa, Area Head Supervisor, Corporate Learning & Development Organization & Workforce Development, Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD)

“In my opinion, Dr. Stephen Covey is the most influential leader of all time. When I started with The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company back in 1997, it was mandatory for all leaders to attend ‘The 7 Habits for Highly Effective People,’ a truly life-changing program.

As I grew with the company, I was able to get certified to teach many programs from the company, FranklinCovey, one of them being ‘Great Leaders, Great Teams, Great Results’ based on the ‘8th Habit.’ In the rollout of this program in the dead of winter, in Snowbird, UT, hundreds of us eagerly waited to discover what this new program was about. To our surprise, Dr. Covey himself took the stage and taught the first part of the course.

At a very young age, Dr. Covey had leaders who saw so much potential in him and taught him to go out there and teach others. His mantra was all about creating greatness and excellence in people, cities, and countries. As we broke into smaller groups, Dr. Covey went to every room to continue to teach part of the program but allowed us to ask him any questions. I could not believe the dedication and passion for excellence and the commitment he had to make sure we all understood what true leadership excellence was all about.

At the end of the program, he allowed all of us to come and get autographs and pictures with him or just shake his hand. There were so many people that I said, ‘Forget it, there are too many people, he will be gone soon.’

The gentleman next to me said, ‘Come on, I am sure he will wait for everyone’.

He sure did, but when I got to him, I said, ‘Dr. Covey, all of my materials have been packed and shipped and the only thing I have in my pocket is a card that represents the culture of my company, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company.’

Dr. Covey took my card and his eyes lit up, and he said, ‘I am a big fan of The Ritz-Carlton—all of you understand how to create excellence.’

Dr. Covey autographed my Credo card and took a picture with me. I was taking a picture with a legend. I am where I am today because of individuals like him. It doesn’t matter where you are from, what your nationality is, or the type of work you do, we all have the power to create excellence and greatness every time, everywhere. His legacy will live forever.”

—Alexandra Valentin , CHT (Certified Hospitality Trainer), Corporate Director, The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center

“Thank you for the opportunity to convey a little story about Dr. Stephen Covey. I have been a facilitator of learning for Covey material for about 15 years. I have seen the powerful impact of the ‘7 Habits’ on all ages of people, occupations, sizes of companies, and industries—there is no doubt that the material and its author, Stephen Covey, are transformational.

A senior executive in a financial services company attended my ‘7 Habits’ workshop. Nearing age 45, she was excited about converting the principles of the ‘7 Habits’ to her own life, and the miracle that she believed had led her to her soul mate and to her first marriage. Known to be a tough negotiator and no-nonsense executive, she surprised us when she chose to write a personal mission statement, not only for herself and her remarkable career, but a mission written by bride and groom as a shared vision of the new marriage. As she read their mission statement on the following day of class, coworkers were moved by the passion and deep meaning: ‘We will live forever in love, for love, with love in all that we do, together and apart.’ What was happening to this assertive, competitive professional?

The wedding was in August; in November, the groom was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. In their final three months together, that mission statement became their lighthouse. They were immensely focused on how to love each other, together and apart, every moment of every day…much like the video in the Habits workshop. They cruised Hawaii, they held parties with family and friends, they spent their time ‘thinking with the end in mind’…wanting their last day together to be one of joy, peace, and acceptance. They were living examples of the emotional bank account, doing things for each other, even though illness was cutting their time so short. In the final month, it was difficult for them to communicate as medications were blurring his consciousness and numbing the pain. I watched a strong and successful professional, once unmindful of those around her, change from a poor leader to a great leader.

Months later, at a memorial, she read their mission statement again. This time, the words were even more striking, ‘We will live forever in love, for love, with love in all that we do, together and apart.’ Their very short six months as husband and wife had been a success, beyond their dreams and expectations. She thanked me; I felt embarrassed. It was the Covey wisdom, not my own, that had guided her to create the marriage mission.

I wrote to Stephen Covey, thanking him on her behalf for the transformation that his teachings brought to their lives and to my life and to so many others. Dr. Covey wrote back to me, inviting me to always share what I had learned from this experience. In his memory, I want to share this story with Training magazine readers in hopes it might inspire someone, too. If you don’t have a mission statement, stop what you’re doing and create one…even better, create one for your family or partnership or team at work. From the inside out, nothing is more inspiring.”

—Martha Oxley, Vice President, Learning & Development, Vistage International

“In 1997, I was certified to teach the ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People.’ In the years that followed, I facilitated these workshops week after week and to this day consider myself fortunate to be able to revisit these principles again and again—and through the lens of new learners each time. I showed Dr. Covey’s videos so many times, he felt like a close, personal friend. I could repeat him word for word and knew exactly the moment learners would respond with a laugh or a nod of agreement, and even the exact moment they would scribble down his words of wisdom. I personally never tire of watching The Big Rocks.

More than any other courseware I have taught in my career, Stephen Covey’s timeless principles have been some of the most impactful—relevant in both business and
personal life.”

—Kerry Walker, Learning Consultant, Bank of America

“Any training professional who is truly committed to the development of others must give thoughtful consideration to the work of Dr. Stephen Covey. In the 20 years since I was first introduced to his work, there have been few experiences that have affected me more.

No other body of work has been as consistently relevant to the developmental needs of my learners. Dr. Covey will forever be known as one of the great teachers of our time.”

—Corey J. Rewis, Learning Manager, Bank of America

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.