AB Thinks  →  15th July 2021

The book I wish I’d read 30 years ago

What book should all communication professionals read? It’s one of the final questions I ask every guest on The Internal Comms Podcast and the responses are fascinating. (You can find them in the links section of the show notes for each episode).

Though, looking back, if the tables were turned and I was asked for my must-read recommendation, I would have struggled to name a clear winner. Until now.

During a recent period of convalescence, I finally read one of the most renowned business books of all time. It did not disappoint.

You may think you know Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – indeed, it has been endlessly referenced, reviewed and recited during the 32 years since publication (Google ‘the seven habits’, and you get more than 200 million results).

But I would advise any intrepid comms professional to read the original, and read it closely. There is perhaps no better foundation for personal and career success, especially for those of us working in communication.

What follows is not another rendition of the seven habits. There are plenty of those. Instead, here are seven Covey comms takeaways.

#1 Focus on character, not personality
Before writing The 7 Habits, Covey did what all good authors do: he researched his subject. His in-depth study of ‘success literature’ published in the United States since 1776 found an interesting divergence in thinking.

For the first 150 years until World War I, scholars focused on the so-called ‘Character Ethic’ – intrinsic human qualities such as integrity, humility and courage.

However, after the Great War, attention shifted to the ‘Personality Ethic’ – superficial quick fixes, or what Covey calls ‘social Band-Aids’. These are techniques and skills designed to improve our appearance, image and social interactions.

But to focus solely on technique is like cramming your way through school, writes Covey. You might get a few good grades, but you will never have the foundational understanding to master your subject.

As communication professionals, we know not all our leaders have forceful, charismatic or even warm personalities. But while showmanship is helpful – I do recommend media and public speaking training – a leader’s moral compass, their values and treatment of others say far more than any carefully crafted soundbite.

A good comms adviser can help any individual become a trusted leader if they have innate qualities such as integrity, empathy and resolve. As Covey says: “It is character that communicates most eloquently.”

#2 Begin with the end in mind
Covey asks us to imagine being at our own funeral. What would we want people to say of us? It’s a sobering thought. But, by working backwards – deciding what we want our legacy to be – we are moving towards a specific destination. We can prioritise and plan effectively. If we don’t know where we are heading, any direction will do.

As an agency, we are often given rather vague, intangible goals by clients: to raise awareness or to increase engagement, for example. By asking stakeholders to consider the legacy of our communication, we get vital intelligence that directly informs the creative brief and the way we measure success. (You can test our creative process for free here.)

#3 Seek first to understand
“If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood,” writes Covey.

In our rush to persuade, explain or inform, we often fail to understand our audience. Our message falls on deaf ears, or worse still, it causes confusion or misunderstanding.

The solution? Listen. Really listen. “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,” Covey shrewdly observes. We listen autobiographically, projecting our own narrative onto what we hear. Instead, Covey advises us to listen empathetically. Not to sympathise or even agree, simply to understand.

When researching my book, From Cascade to Conversation, I was heavily influenced by the work of Edgar Schein, author of Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. “All my teaching and consulting experience has taught me that what builds a relationship, what solves problems, what moves things forward is asking the right questions,” Schein writes.

Comms professionals are often under pressure to tell. Deadlines loom in perpetuity. But before we broadcast the message, have we asked the right questions? Seeking context and clarification by asking open, probing questions will always make our communication more robust.

#4 Diagnose before you prescribe
Covey asks us to imagine having trouble with our eyesight. We visit an optometrist and, after listening to our problem, he takes off his glasses and hands them to us.

“Put these on,” he says. “I’ve worn this pair of glasses for ten years now, and they’ve really helped me.”

We try them on, but they only make the problem worse. Would we ever revisit this optometrist who prescribes before he diagnoses? Of course not. But how often do we prescribe a communication solution before accurately diagnosing the problem?

When we first developed the AB Acid Test Audit some 25 years ago, it was to diagnose the causes of poor communication before rushing to solutions. We defined ‘poor communication’ as a lack of shared understanding and the misalignment of goals. But, once the reason and degree of misunderstanding are apparent, the solution is often self-evident. And, getting buy-in to the subsequent course of action is far easier.

Jenni Field, the author of Influential Internal Communication, spoke about the importance of accurately diagnosing communication problems in episode 46 of The Internal Comms Podcast. And we both agreed, the method of reaching a diagnosis is as important as the diagnosis itself.

#5 Don’t get buried in the thick of thin things
When Covey first wrote of the ‘urgency addiction’ in 1989, it was 18 years before the first iPhone launched. Today, I would argue humanity’s urgency addiction has reached epic proportions. We are constantly tethered to our smart devices. Those notifying pings, like relentless tugs on our sleeve, are continually demanding our time and attention.

Covey’s time management matrix is a tool for differentiating the urgent from the important. Like the Eisenhower Matrix, it provides a valuable tool for planning and prioritisation. After all, what is urgent is rarely important. All those red-flag emails in your inbox, for example, are almost entirely someone else’s problem. Conversely, truly important tasks often have no obvious deadline, and as such are too easily shifted to tomorrow.

By identifying what is truly important for your organisation – and what communication will most help achieve its goals – we can rank the numerous campaigns we are asked to deliver. We can better negotiate with stakeholders by showing a method to our planning, prioritisation and allocation of resources. Perhaps most importantly, we can say ‘no’ with greater confidence.

#6 Good, you see it differently!
It is tempting to feel threatened or even hurt when someone disagrees with us. Or we may feel the other person is misguided or lacking good judgement. But questioning someone’s opinions is not the same as questioning their character.

As Covey explains, if we genuinely value difference, a contrary viewpoint should be a source of intrigue, perhaps even celebration. As managing director of AB, when I see everyone in vehement agreement, my immediate thought is: ‘what are we missing?’

My advice to comms professionals is to embrace – or better still, actively seek – divergent views. The next time someone says, “Actually, I disagree…” try saying, “Good, let’s dig into that.” Open the door to fresh thinking.

#7 It’s not a compromise, but a third alternative
Covey outlines two mindsets. The first is the ‘Scarcity Mentality’. These people think success is finite. If you win, they lose. They are constantly comparing and competing. In their worldview, the pie is only so big. If you get a bigger slice, theirs is inevitably smaller.

The second is the ‘Abundance Mentality’. These people see unlimited possibilities for personal growth and success. As a result, they are happy to share ideas, prestige, recognition and decision-making. “I have an abundance mentality,” writes Covey. “When people are genuinely happy at the successes of others, the pie gets larger.”

If you adopt this mindset, you become more open to the ‘third alternative’ – not your way or my way, but something neither of us would have thought of on our own. As a result, our differences are no longer stumbling blocks to communication and progress. Instead, they become the steppingstones to better thinking.

In creative brainstorms, the thought of ‘compromising’ or ‘diluting’ the idea is abhorrent. But Covey suggests adopting a different outlook. Explore the middle or third way – the triangle’s apex – where differing views or opinions meet.

In summary…
It’s no mystery why Covey’s book has sold more than 25 million copies. I only wish I’d bought myself one 30 years ago.