Corporate America, Dr. Feelgood Will See You Now

There's a mystical aura about the man on the dimly lit stage. He speaks in a near-monotone whisper, as if in a cavernous church, occasionally venturing into the audience to press a point. The video on two large screens magnifies his every move.

Another TV evangelist delivering a sermon to his flock? Not here. On Nov. 19, the crowd that has filled New York's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center is purely professional--some 600 managers and executives from Citicorp, Merrill Lynch, and other corporate giants, a smattering of entrepreneurs, even some government bureaucrats. Each has paid $239 for six hours of feel-good inspiration, analysis, and advice.

For their money, they get Stephen R. Covey, today's high priest of self-help. A modern-day version of Norman Vincent Peale, Covey is hot--and getting hotter. His Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, still on The New York Times best-seller list after 144 weeks, has become a catechism of leadership, selling 3.5 million copies through 31 printings. His Leadership Center in Provo, Utah, now employs 450 (highly effective) people, an increase from 50 less than a decade ago. They spread the word through various publications and seminars that attract the likes of AT&T, Saturn, and Xerox.

SWITCHING SPECS. The "word" can be boiled down to Covey's seven precepts for success. They urge followers to be proactive, establish clear-cut goals, think positively, and act ethically (table). In truth, the Covey message isn't much more than recycled cliches, translated into business-speak and updated with charts, tables, and illustrations. The 61-year-old Covey doesn't push it much beyond that. His message, he says, is "common sense organized."

However it is defined, Corporate America seems to love it. "Covey is a cross between a psychoanalyst and a university professor," says a Merrill Lynch vice-president who attended the New York session. "It's like organizational group therapy." Take Covey's "win-win" principle: It is little more than the old idea of encouraging people to seek mutually beneficial solutions. Conoco Inc. says it is Covey's restatement of the concept that helped it develop a program that keeps some displaced employees on the payroll six months after their jobs have been eliminated. In that time, they can apply for open positions within the company. Conoco says the program has saved $12 million in reduced severance payments since May, 1992.

Many of Covey's ideas are rooted in religious teachings--he is a devout Mormon with nine children. "I'm a great believer in studying the scriptures and the philosophy of the great thinkers," Covey says. It shows, as he wanders from Albert Einstein to Sigmund Freud in the course of the morning session.

His day-long seminar is filled with jabs at some of the narrow-minded practices of Corporate America--and the audience eats it up. At one point, he strolls over to two managers and switches their eyeglasses. One protests, claiming that he can no longer see. "You're not thinking positively enough," says Covey. "This is the company way. When we want your opinion, we'll give it to you."

ADULATION. The line draws a chuckle from the crowd. "He walks the talk more than anyone else," says R. Michael Baron, quality systems manager at Maxwell House Coffee Co., who also attended the seminar. "He lives it, and you can see it." Nicholas A. Sabatini, a manager with the Federal Aviation Administration, describes himself as a Covey disciple. He brought 15 employees along to the New York meeting. "Covey is able to identify and put a handle on so many of the things I've thought and felt," he says.

What's all this adulation worth to Covey and his center? About $50 million annually--thanks to sales of audiotapes, a monthly newsletter, and those speeches. Covey says he gets at least 20 invitations each day to speak and expects to make up to 110 appearances next year.

Still, the Harvard University MBA, who taught organizational behavior for 20 years at Brigham Young University's business school, pooh-poohs the notion that he has become a cult figure. "I hope not, because the power is not in me at all," says Covey. "It's all in the principles. I don't like the spirit of cult, or guru, or having disciples at all." Guru or not, Covey keeps packing them in.

      Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
        We are responsible for our own lives
      END IN MIND 
        Know where you're going to understand where you are now
      3.FIRST THINGS FIRST   Organize and act around priorities
      4.THINK "WIN/WIN" 
        Look for mutually beneficial solutions
        Listen to see how others see things
      6.SYNERGIZE   Make a whole greater than the sum of its parts
      7.SHARPEN THE SAW   Take a break to renew your resources
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