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May 2009
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TD Magazine

Stephen M.R. Covey

Stephen M.R. Covey is a globally renowned keynote speaker and advisor. He is the former CEO and president of Covey Leadership Center, and his areas of expertise include trust, leadership, ethics, and high performance. Covey helped make The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, written by his father Stephen R. Covey, one of the top two business books of the 20th century. Author of The Speed of Trust, Covey challenges audiences with the idea that trust is a hard-edged economic driver rather than just a soft social virtue. He serves on several boards, including that of the Human Performance Institute.

Q| What was your first job, and what lesson did you take away from it?

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My first real job was at the real estate developer Trammell Crow Company. I got hired by the company, but I had to find the right match for the office that I would be a part of. I remember feeling quite discouraged after meeting with several offices, and not having them feel like I was the right person.

Finally, I interviewed with John Walsh, the partner over a certain office. After the interview, he said, "I believe in Stephen. He's the person that I want on my team for my office."

I responded to that. I wanted to prove that his trust was well-placed and repay it. In a little bit of time, I was able to perform at a very, very high level. I advanced pretty fast, and my motivation behind it was the trust that had been placed in me.

I learned that trust is the most compelling form of human motivation. It inspires people when it's extended to them. I use it today: how many times are there people who will respond to trust that I extend to them and rise to the occasion? There's some risk in it, I know, but there's a risk in not doing it.

Q| Could you explain how trust is an economic driver, not just a social virtue?

For many leaders, trust is still seen as a nice-to-have social virtue. Nobody is going to denigrate it, but I'm making the argument that trust is a hard-edged economic driver because it always affects two measurable outcomes: speed and cost.

The economics of trust are such that when trust goes down in a relationship, company, or culture; on a team; or with a customer, speed will go down and cost will go up. This is a low-trust tax, and everything is taxed. My experience is that significant distrust doubles the cost of doing business and triples the time it takes to get things done.

But when trust goes up in a relationship, company, or culture; on a team; or with a customer, the speed goes up and the cost comes down. This is a high-trust dividend - everything happens faster and everything costs you less. It's really that simple and predictable. This trust dividend is a performance multiplier that affects the trajectory of every other aspect, strength, and activity that you have or do within an organization or relationship. It's like a rising tide that lifts boats.

Q| Do you have any memorable anecdotes from your experiences as a keynote speaker?

I did an event in conjunction with the World Economic Forum in Tianjin, China. I participated in a panel there where we brainstormed the biggest challenge to growth over the next year. What came up as the biggest challenge, even more than the financial crisis, was the crisis of trust and confidence. It was provocative and validating that all these leaders of industry, government, and education voted that the biggest challenge was the crisis of trust and confidence because of how it drives everything else and how it exacerbates the financial challenge.

Q| What is a change you'd like to see in the field of leadership development within the next decade?

I would like to see trust in all stakeholders be systematically measured within organizations. The numbers are close to 10 to 15 percent that systematically do it, according to a survey we did. I'd like to see that number jump up to 80 percent plus. I'd like to see that measurement of trust (internal trust within a company and external trust with stakeholders, customers, suppliers, partners, and distributors) becomes the common practice.

You can measure trust, and you can move the needle on it. By focusing on it and increasing it, we'll get better at it and we'll get better results. We measure what we value, so let's value trust.

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Q| Based on the flurry of corporate scandals in recent years, what do you think should be the role of ethics within organizations?

You need that foundation of ethics and integrity in order to succeed in the marketplace. Yet, ethics by itself is insufficient. You cannot have trust without ethics, but you can't have ethics without trust. In other words, ethics is vital, but you need more than that. I talk about trust being both character and competence. The character is the ethics, but you still need the competence side.

For too many companies, ethics has become a compliance-based, outside-in approach, which is not nearly as strong as a values-based, inside-out approach. It's become a follow-the-rules checklist, which can lose some of its value. Like Albert Camus said, "Integrity has no need of rules." Principles are indispensable to good business, good organizational cultures, and good relationships.

Q| Are you working on any new books/projects?

I'm working on a book that is going to illustrate and demonstrate the speed of trust in action, and how it plays out in the markets. I'm trying to show how this is real and practical. There are leaders, companies, industries, and countries that are doing it, and they're getting a dividend as a result. They're performing differently and better as they learn and understand how to create, grow, and leverage trust.

Q| How do you enjoy spending your free time?

I am crazy about my wife and my children. I try to spend as much free time as I can with them. My children are my hobbies. I love to be, travel, and learn with them. I love to involve my family in my work in a way that is interesting and exciting to them.

I also love to read and try to stay current and abreast of the issues and opportunities of our world today.

About the Author

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.

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