Covey, Stephen R.

views updated

Covey, Stephen R.

Franklin Covey


Stephen Covey is the author of the best–selling The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which has sold more than 12 million copies since its 1989 publication. The Covey Leadership Center—a spin–off management–training center that focuses on the book's tenets, merged with Franklin Quest in 1997 to form Franklin Covey. With offices in 60 countries and a 2001 market value of $80 million, Franklin Covey has proved that a product that, for the most part, merely refreshes one's own common–sense good management and leadership principles does, nonetheless, have staying power in the industry.

Personal Life

Stephen R. Covey was born to Stephen Glenn and Louise (Richards) Covey in 1932. Raised on an egg farm outside of Salt Lake City, Covey started out being an athlete but suffered through surgical reconstruction of the bones in his thighs as a teenager, causing him to spend three years on crutches with steel pins implanted in his legs. Covey redirected his energies into academics, taking a particular liking to debate, public speaking classes, and also forensics during high school. He was raised in a devout and close Mormon family, and his parents were exceptionally supportive of anything he engaged himself in. Covey once told a Fortune magazine interviewer that he did not drink or smoke while growing up, but he recalled keeping a fifth of liquor for friends who were in trouble with their own parents. He set the bottle in full view on the top of his dresser. Neither parent questioned him about it nor even mentioned it, because they knew he had no intention of drinking it. He found that event particularly symbolic of their "affirmation."

The 5'7" Covey entered the University of Utah at the tender age of 16 and graduated with a degree in business administration at the age of 20, in 1952. However, his own recollection of those years is of playing ping–pong and cramming for exams. He had vaguely assumed that after graduation he would go into the family business, "Covey's Little America," a hotel and truck stop started by his grandfather in the 1880s. His grandfather, a shepherd, nearly froze to death one cold night in Wyoming and vowed to build a place of refuge if he survived. The business turned into a gold mine later when a highway was built through the area.

But Covey and his brother were both drawn to teaching, and the family business was eventually sold to an outsider, Earl Holding (who, anecdotally, became the owner of Sinclair Oil and the Sun Valley Ski Resort as well). Covey went on to England to serve his two–year term as a Mormon missionary, which set the stage for unfolding events that would change the course of his life.

Career Details

Only a few months into his missionary trip, Covey was redirected to Nottingham to train Mormon "branch presidents" of new congregations. He was reduced to a nonplus by the order, but his mission president encouraged him, telling him, "You can do it." He credits that mission president with getting him started in the business of training leaders. The perilous experience became the root of his future belief in the concept that one learns by teaching.

Covey earned his MBA from Harvard in 1957 and then served three years in Ireland as a missionary for his Mormon faith. As his skills in public speaking were married to the subject matter of preparing Mormon leaders, Covey became increasingly drawn to the human side of successful business. When he returned to Salt Lake City with his family, he became an assistant to the president of Brigham Young University in Provo. He continued with the university in a variety of administrative posts and then was named an associate professor in the business department in 1970. The father of nine children, his business leadership principles also carried into the home. (His son, Stephen M. R., would later relate to Fortune magazine interviewers in 1994 that he recalled growing up in a family that had its mission statement hanging on the wall. "From my earliest years I remember we would have family councils, where we would discuss our jobs, and responsibilities, and integrity, and courage, and fairness and sportsmanship. I'm sure that many families implicitly do that; this was a more explicit way of doing it.")

Coinciding with his positions at Brigham Young, Covey returned to the classroom himself to complete his doctorate degree with a cross discipline in business and education. Importantly, he chose for his doctoral dissertation the subject of the human side of success in America, as evidenced through "success literature" from 1776 forward. In his studies, Covey found that during the nation's first 150 years, most literature dealing with the subject focused on issues of character and character building—the archetype being the autobiography of Ben Franklin. But according to Covey, following World War II, the focus shifted to the cultivation of certain skills and techniques, behaviors, attitudes, and the promotion of a certain public image in order to be "successful" in the world. Covey began to consider ways to convince people to stop focusing on superficial charm and return to character building. At about the same time, he moved from administrative positions to teaching organizational behavior in the business department.

Covey's Spiritual Roots of Human Relations and How to Succeed with People, published locally in 1970 and 1971 respectively, serve to reflect those early thoughts and considerations on personal success. Covey's Seven Habits program, taught in his organizational behavior classes, began to draw extraordinary numbers of students (600, 800, 1,000). In 1985, to accommodate a larger and broader audience, he quit teaching and founded the Covey Leadership Center in Provo, putting all his personal possessions up as collateral—including his cabin, his home, his trust money, and all his savings. The investment proved sound for Covey and the seven other investors.

Chronology: Stephen R. Covey

1932: Born in Salt Lake City.

1952: Earned B.S. degree from University of Utah.

1956: Married Sandra Merrill.

1957: Earned M.B.A. degree from Harvard University.

1970: Became adjunct professor in business department at Brigham Young.

1976: Earned D.R.E. degree from Brigham Young University.

1985: Founded Covey Leadership Center.

1989: Published The Seven Habits.

1997: Merged with Franklin Quest to create Franklin Covey.

The Center became the nucleus from which Covey grew all else. In 1989 Covey published The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which stayed on the New York Times best seller list for nearly five years. Its principles, honed from Covey's hugely successful seminars and speeches, became the seminal source for future books, CD–ROMs, and the Center's newsletter, Executive Excellence. Essentially, the seven habits represented more of a "back to basics" paradigm than a novel approach to management and leadership. They are summarized as follows: 1) Be proactive; 2) Begin with an end in mind; 3) Put first things first; 4) Think win/win; 5) Seek first to understand, then to be understood; 6) Synergize; and 7) Sharpen the saw (engage one's talents and capabilities). Said Covey to Fortune's interviewer at the time, "There's nothing new in all this, I just built the bridge between the theory and the practice."

Simple as it seemed, Covey's message rang true, and his "must read" book was translated into 26 languages. It was followed with his publication of First Things First, which capitalized on the same principles stated differently. Later, he published the equally popular Living the Seven Habits: Stories of Courage and Inspiration. Covey also is the author of The Divine Center (1982); (with Truman Madsen) Marriage and Family (1983); Principle–Centered Leadership (1991); Daily Reflections for Highly Effective People (1994); and Six Transcendent Events: Using the Lord's Model to Solve Life's Problems.

By 1996 then–63–year–old Covey had been named one of Time magazine's 25 most influential Americans. His list of counselees included Newt Gingrich and then–President Bill Clinton. Later, in December 2000, Covey was invited to appear on National Public Radio's Morning Edition to offer advice to president–elect George W. Bush. Said Covey, who thought Bush showed good leadership potential, "His ability to listen, to acknowledge and respect differences and diversity was so evident in his governorship. . . ."

Covey's fees for speaking at conferences were upwards of $55,000, and the list of reservations never seemed to end. More than half of all employees of Fortune 500 companies and the U.S. Postal Service had attended his lectures, and entire communities adopted his management ideas (e.g., Columbus, Indiana, with a population of 36,000). Most of the hugely popular management–training seminars were held 20 minutes away from the Leadership Center, at Robert Redford's more scenic Sundance Ski Resort. Companies were sending employees there for week–long visits at $3,900 a head. There were Covey training tapes and CDs, Covey polo shirts, Covey checkbook covers, and long lines of readers waiting for autographed copies of Covey's books. At the time, Ronald Heifetz, director of the Leadership Education Project at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, remarked to Time interviewers that "he is packaging common sense as if it were original and making a fortune doing it." According to that periodical, Covey's Leadership Center, comprising eight mock–Georgian style buildings in an office park near a main highway, employed 700 persons and had grossed $78 million the previous year.

In 1997 Covey merged with time–planning Franklin Quest to form the Salt Lake City–based Franklin Covey, of which he is co–chairman. By 2001 the new company, with offices in 60 countries, had already generated $500 million on spin–offs from Covey's book, including audio and video tapes, day–planners, software, and six sequels. This was on top of the more than $500 million Covey had raked in for himself from his best–seller. Another book, promising a fresh approach to management in the 21st century, was scheduled for publication in the spring of 2002. According to Sunday Business writer Catherine Wheatley, Franklin Covey has advised more than four–fifths of America's Fortune 100 companies and thousands of small businesses. Notwithstanding, Wheatley's November 2001 article indicates that Covey's merger with Franklin Quest was not particularly smooth. The two entities could not agree on "location, location," and both sides complained that the other was withholding client information. The new company had posted losses for 1999 and early 2000. But Covey was positive. "[I]t just takes time to make a blended alternative," he insisted.

In Spring 2001, Covey authored an article for Management Quarterly that applied his seven habits to a technological world. He cautioned his readers to remember that "Technology is a good servant and a bad master." In the article, Covey revisited each of his seven famous principles, citing examples of their application to the challenges of modern technology and electronic communications and advising that they are "as true today as they were in 1989."

Time management is nothing new to Covey; an old friend once told Fortune magazine interviewers that he recalled stumbling over Covey at a gym many years ago. Covey was lying on the floor with two or three showers running over him, brushing his teeth and shaving at the same time. Covey's role in Franklin Covey appears to synchronize his management and leadership principles with Franklin's time–management programs. Franklin Covey online ( features an interactive service to "create your own Personal Mission Statement," where you may fill out the form, build a mission statement, and have it returned to you by mail. The company also offers palm organizers, planning software, and online software training courses. Other Web sites have praised the products as well. The University of Virginia has summarized the famous seven habits on its "Time Management" site ( Online training workshops also include sessions on pinpointing goals, project management, and Covey's "Principle–Centered Leadership."

Covey received the Thomas More College Medallion in 1990 for continued service to humanity; Utah Symphony's Fiftieth Anniversary Award for outstanding national and international contribution (also in 1990), and the 1991 McFeely Award from the International Management Council for significant contributions to management and education. He also is the founder of the Institute for Principle–Centered Leadership and a guest lecturer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. A devout Mormon, Covey continues to tithe, live in the same house as he did while teaching at Brigham Young, and drive his Jeep Cherokee to and from his engagements.

Social and Economic Impact

As Stuart Crainer stated in a September 2001 issue of The Times, "The business self–improvement master of our times is undoubtedly Stephen Covey, a shave–headed Mormon who has created a business empire on the back of his best–seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." There are similarities between the "effectiveness" movement Covey has spawned and competing organizational improvement programs such as "excellence," TQM, and re–engineering—but none has had the staying power or the broad–band appeal that has been identified with Covey. Because he has focused on the human element of good leadership and management, his principles carry over well into one's personal life. This has added not only to the multi–market saturation of his products but also to the enrichment of persons who might not even be employed or in official leadership roles. By capitalizing on admirable human virtues—whether in the conference room or in the kitchen—he has expanded his potential audience to virtually everyone.

Sources of Information

Contact at: Franklin Covey
3507 North University Ave., Suite 100
Provo, UT 84604


Allen, Debra. "Real Time and How to Manage it Better." Link–Up, November/December 2001.

Butler, Charles. "What's the Big Deal About Stephen Covey?" Sales & Marketing Management, April 1997.

Cooper, Matthew. "The Bill–and–Newt Gurus." U.S. News & World Report, 23 January 1995.

Covey, Stephen. "The 7 Habits 11 Years Later: Applying the Habits in a Technological World." Management Quarterly, Spring 2001.

Crainer, Stuart. "Don't Mock the Self–improvement Gurus." The Times, 20 September 2001.

Edwards, Bob. "Interview: Stephen Covey Offers Some Suggestions to President–elect George W. Bush. . . ." Morning Edition (NPR), 26 December 2000.

Jackson, Bradley. "The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg? A Rhetorical Critique of Stephen Covey and the Effectiveness Movement." Journal of Management Studies, 31 May 1999.

Smith, Timothy. "What's So Effective About Stephen Covey?" Fortune, 12 December 1994.

"Time's 25 Most Influential Americans." Time, 17 June 1996.

Wheatley, Catherine. "Self–Help Business Management Guru Plans to Release New Book." Sunday Business, 11 November 2001.