Executives attending Stephen Covey's recent Hong Kong workshop on "Predictable Results in Unpredictable Times" might have come in search of leadership insights and sound management advice, but they ended up getting far more than that.
The business guru and author of runaway bestseller, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, had a very clear message to deliver which, with evident passion, he believes no organisation can afford to ignore.
In essence, he said, managers and leaders must move beyond industrial-age thinking and all it entailed in terms of hierarchy, bureaucracy, controls and restrictions. For future success, they must accept that we have entered the age of the knowledge worker and move fast to adapt accordingly.
The seismic shift now under way, as momentous in its impact as the transition from agricultural to industrial society, accounts for the "unpredictable times" of the workshop's title. However, those who take proactive steps, implement a programme for change, and allow employees to throw off the shackles that limit creativity and confidence, can chart a clear course ahead.
"I think most people are still deeply mired in the industrial age and act according to that map and on those assumptions, rather than becoming part of the knowledge worker economy," Covey said. "But if organisations build trust and culturally empower their employees, then everyone becomes responsible and accountable. We see that companies that do this are three times more profitable in the long run than those that don't."
He said the path to predictable results, achieved by a motivated, committed workforce, depended on four key factors: building trust with stakeholders; executing with excellence; achieving more with less; and transforming fear with engagement.
Regarding the importance of trust, Covey stressed that leaders, in particular, must break away from a typical reliance on position for their formal authority. Instead, like Mahatma Gandhi, they should aim to develop moral authority for what they do, based on principles, character and competence.
"To borrow strength from position develops weakness in yourself, in others and in the relationship," said Covey, noting too that trust was the hidden variable that could enhance collaboration and change everything.
He identified establishing trust as one of the four key imperatives for great leaders. The others are clarity of purpose, aligning systems and unleashing talent, which, taken together, could provide a blueprint for success in any field.
If any of that appeared difficult, Covey was ready with a series of signposts, techniques and checklists to give practical guidance and keep people on track. These drew heavily on the principles and practices that underpinned his widely acclaimed seven habits. In addition to those, he also made it plain that a leader should encourage staff to set their own goals and, by extension, be given greater responsibility for managing themselves.
The days of command and control from above were on the way out, he added. In their place was a new paradigm built on behaviour that valued openness, honesty, better listening and accountability at all levels. Companies that failed to realise this would face an uphill battle for customers, staff and sustainable results. Ultimately, in a competitive business world, they're likely to fail completely.
Deep down, Covey pointed out, every individual wanted to win, to contribute to a goal, and to share in a success. It was up to managers to make this happen.
"Don't think of employees as an expense," he said. "Involve them in the questions and work out the solutions together. When people start to get involved, they start to feel responsible and that starts to change the mores and the norms of the organisation."
A direct consequence was less need for corporate rules and regulations. Or, put another way, it would be possible to replace fear - as a key motivator of employees - with engagement. Staff would now have the chance to make a distinctive contribution, reach their potential and, in step with their leaders, achieve a measure of greatness.
"Industrial age assumptions are so deeply embedded in some organisations that people don't even question them," Covey said. "The leadership and hierarchy becomes insulated and isolated from what is going on. In those cases, you have to win the private victory before you win the public victory."
`The Predictable Results in Unpredictable Times' workshop, on October 20, was organised by Right Management with Classified Post as the exclusive media sponsor.
'Trim tab' your way to success
In his wide-ranging workshop on "Predictable Results in Unpredictable Times", Stephen Covey uses a short film interlude to explain the principle of the "trim tab".
On a large ocean-going vessel, this is the small rudder operated by the steersman on the bridge that causes the main rudder to swing, slowly changing the direction of the ship and making it possible to manoeuvre.
The point of the example is that no matter who we are, what we do or how tough our situation is, all of us can be "trim tabbers" if we choose to be. Positive, lasting change comes from small beginnings.
Illustrating that, Covey refers to how New York City drastically reduced crime. Rather than devising some elaborate and expensive scheme to right social wrongs, officials decided instead to tackle small felonies - fare dodging, spraying graffiti - on the city's subway system. Within a relatively short time, results surpassed all expectations because of a general change in attitudes. The direct knock-on effect was a spectacular drop in all types of crime.
"By focusing on what you can do and then making small adjustments along the way, your contribution will make a difference," Covey says.
"That also applies to people in the day-to-day work environment who do not feel fulfilled or excited. Like a match, you have tremendous potential bundled up inside. If you find it and inspire others to find theirs, you can powerfully impact the entire culture."
While he might have made his name in business, Covey has gone well beyond that in delivering a message to transform lives.
"I feel a very strong mission for this and focus mostly on universal, timeless, self-evident principles that transcend different generations," he says. "The more you deal with the question of what gives meaning to your life, the more you tap into your spiritual nature."