A Highly Effective Person

When I received the reading list for my MBA there was only one title on it that was in bold, underlined three times and italicised. Stephen Covey’s classic, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’

I read it then and I’ve reread and dipped into it innumerable times since. If you want to class it as a ‘self-help’ book, then it’s far and away the best one that I’ve read.

With Stephen Covey’s death this week (following complications caused by an accident on his bike) it seemed appropriate to look back on the 7 Habits. The book was first published in 1989 (yep, makes me feel old as well…) Has the book stood the test of time? Are the 7 Habits as relevant now as they were more than 20 years ago?

I think the short answer to that last question is ‘yes.’ For a book to sell more than 20 million copies there has to be a fundamental truth in it – and I think the strength of the 7 Habits is that they will always be relevant. Twenty years ago the internet was in its infancy and Mark Zuckerberg was in grade school – but ‘putting first things first’ and ‘thinking win/win’ are no less relevant now than they’ve ever been.

For anyone who’s never read the book – or for those of you that might need a refresher course – let’s have a quick whistle-stop tour through the 7 Habits. The first three deal with independence – taking control of your own life; something that The Alternative Board is specifically there to help you do.

So habit #1 is Be Proactive. The need to take action has been a theme running through a lot of the recent posts, and it was one that Covey constantly stressed. “Wake up each morning and ask yourself whether you will act upon life, or whether you’ll let life act upon you.”

Begin with the end in mind. Life is so much easier when it flows backwards! If you know exactly what you’re trying to achieve then it becomes so much simpler to fill in the steps that you need to take to reach your goals.

Put first things first – a mantra I will repeat until my dying day: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Or to use the phrase from Stephen Covey that was most widely quoted on Twitter in the days after his death, “The key is not to prioritise what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

The next three habits relate to what Covey termed ‘interdependence’ – more simply, working with other people.

Think win/win. I believe that this is essential in business. How many times have you heard, ‘You get what you want by helping someone else get what they want?’ As Covey repeatedly stressed, life is not a zero-sum game. For you to win, someone else does not have to lose.

Seek first to understand, then to be understood – again, I could write a whole post on this one topic. Understand what someone is trying to achieve, what motivates them and what their real goals are and you’re 90% of the way to a satisfying and mutually beneficial business relationship.

And finally, one habit which sums up TAB in one word – Synergize. There is a limit to how much you can achieve alone: ultimately you have to work – and work effectively – with other people.

Habit #7 is the one which Covey saw as holding all the others together. And, important as I think nos. 1-6 are, if I could only take one of the 7 Habits this would be it. Self renewal – what Stephen Covey described as Sharpening the Saw. Again, I hope it’s a theme which has run through this blog: the need to balance work with the rest of your life; the need to be physically and mentally healthy. To slightly mis-quote Covey, it’s making sure you spend time on what’s important, not what’s merely urgent.

There are an abundance of quotations both by and about Stephen Covey. If I’ve missed your favourite, let me know. Similarly, if you think there’s a better self-help book than 7 Habits please tell me, as I clearly need to read it.

Have a great weekend: make sure you sharpen the saw…



  1. Jessica Kemp · July 20, 2012

    your blog got me off to the best start for the day, thanks Ed, feeling very motivated, but more importantly focused. Today will be a good day 🙂

  2. Owen Turner · July 20, 2012

    Great post Ed – book has been ordered! Thank you for a brilliant start to the day!

  3. Michelle Mook · July 20, 2012

    Another excellent blog Ed – like you I dip in and out of Stephen Covey’s book and use elements of it in my work too.

    I’ve always found his Circles of Conern and Circles of Influence within habit#1 Be Proactive to be really helpful when working with people who have lost their focus or are becoming reactive. The minute people start moving towards working on their circle of Influence, they begin to create a positive energy that changes not only themselves but those around them. When we work on what we can change instead of worrying about those that we can’t, we can take positive steps and actions.

    Thank you for the reminder and hope everyone has a highly effective but fun Friday 🙂

  4. Alison Wren (@PaprikaMktg) · July 20, 2012

    I’ve read, re-read and dipped in and out of this book but I just can’t get on with it. Thanks for reminding me, because I can never remember the 7 habits. Yes, Covey’s ideas are spot on, but there is just so much impenetrable jargon. I like my business books clear, concise and readable. Anyone share my views? Or am I in a minority of one?

  5. Mark · July 20, 2012

    Ed, A great Blog. Whilst all 7 habits are important, for me the Win/Win habit really hits the spot. To develop trust and build a long term relationship both parties need to ensure they feel that they have obtained a good deal in any transaction. Only then will there be repeat business.
    Another book I would recommend is Corporate Voodoo by Rene Carayol – Also an excellent motivational speaker. The book questions why people hold on to old habits, which may have been a success in the past, but now leaves them behind the pace in a fast moving world.

  6. Jo Yeates · July 23, 2012

    Am sure I have a half-read copy at home somewhere. Feel inspired to dig it out and have another go at it now. Maybe I should have 8 habits, the first one of which is “Remember to make time to read the self-help books that you buy”!!

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