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There Are No Little Things

Stephen M.R. Covey learned early on in his career that trust made all the difference in business, sales in particular.

Trust has inherent value. It is not just a feeling. When clients trust an advisor, service provider or salesperson, they can accept advice to take action. Transactions are smoother and faster.

Without trust, you have doubt, which slows down or stops the process. The provider has to spend more time and money to salvage rather than serve.

Although Covey confirmed this in his first job, he learned it first from his father, Stephen R. Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a seminal business and self-improvement book. In fact, that book contains stories about when Stephen M.R. was much younger.

Covey promoted what became his father’s most well-known book and helped develop the Covey Leadership Center into what he says was the largest leadership development company worldwide.

But he really came to understand and rely on his lessons about trust when he guided the merger of the Covey Leadership Center and Franklin Quest to form FranklinCovey. He saw how he did not adequately build a foundation of trust for blending the two companies and quickly had to make up for it. He assumed he had trust on the side of the other company that he in fact did not have.

This experience reinforced for Covey that it is the little things that build trust, the details that show you care. Covey made his case in his own book, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything.

In Part Two of his interview with Publisher Paul Feldman, Covey explains that big things come from small gestures.

FELDMAN: You learned about the importance of trust and how to develop it early in your career. Would you tell us that story?

COVEY: My first job was in sales. I was a leasing agent in real estate development. We built spec buildings with no tenants yet, and we’d go out and find tenants to go in them.

We were building a 90,000-square-foot building, and we needed some tenants, and I found a great prospect — this was a cold-call deal — it was Fuji Photo Film and this was in the mid-’80s.

At the time, Fuji had very little presence in the U.S. — they were just getting established here. But I developed a great relationship with the person who ran the division and I said, “Look, we’ve got this new building. It would be great to move into it; it will give you more space to expand and grow.” They were really considering this, and it got to the point where they wanted me to come out to headquarters and meet with the president of the company to talk about this deal. Because this was a big regional office for them.

In preparation for that, I got to thinking, “You know what? I’m going to take pictures of it.” Then I said, “Why don’t we make sure we develop the pictures on Fuji film?”

That sounds like a little thing, but it was actually big because back then Fuji had no market share. It was hard for me to find a place that used Fuji film. This was a different time.

FELDMAN: I can imagine it was hard to find a photo store that did that back then.

COVEY: I had to go all over town — this was in Dallas — until I finally found someone who used Fuji film to develop the pictures.

I flew out to the meeting and we met with the president and the top team. I said, “We’ve got a great building to look at. Here’s some pictures of the building. Why don’t you take a look at these?”

I passed the pictures out, and the first thing the president does is he takes a picture and he turns it over to the back and he sees Fuji Photo Film. He just beamed with a smile. He looked at his colleagues and then he said, “We’ve got a deal.”

FELDMAN: That’s great.

COVEY: And it just brought home to me, there are no little things. That showed that I was trying to be respectful, trying to be influenced by them, and I was aware of the little things that mattered. And I think it just communicated volumes because back then finding that film was not an easy thing to do.

FELDMAN: To Fuji, that’s the most important thing. Just like somebody’s name is their most important thing and if you screw that up, you definitely have damaged their trust. And you saw that and as you said, there are no little things.

COVEY: It was a big thing. And it actually closed the deal. On the spot. I was a young sales guy just starting out, and I said, “Wow, this is amazing.” 

Also, I realized the importance of building trust in relationships and making sure that you always listen first.

My father taught this, as you know. Seek first to understand then to be understood. That’s the key to human effectiveness. Because when you listen first and understand and the other person or party feels understood, they now become open to your influence.

That’s what I understood about Fuji Photo Film. They felt understood right out of the gate. Now they’re open to being influenced by me.

FELDMAN: Your father wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which is a monumental book in the business world. It should be required reading for everybody. So was trust a foundational thing that you found made the big difference when you were at the Covey Leadership Center?

COVEY: Absolutely. In fact, I remember just early on when I first got in as CEO, we had a key product. We had two suppliers to make sure we had redundant sources — one we trusted, one we didn’t.

I said, “Well, if we don’t trust these people, why are we working with them?” People would say, “Well, we’ve got to have a redundant backup source.”

But with the people we trusted, everything was great. The people we didn’t trust, we always had quality issues and problems. It would take longer, cost more and we had to put in place all these controls to compensate for that.

I’d say, “Who’s paying for all this?” Well, we were because we had to have it. We had to have the quality control to make sure that we don’t send off bad product to the customer.

But it was costing us so much, and it dawned on me that there’s a high cost of low trust.

And once I put those glasses on, I started to see it everywhere: in relationships, on teams and in client organizations. When there was trust, you moved fast at low cost. You got this multiplier, a dividend.

When there was low trust for whatever reason, you paid a tax at every gate. Everything would take you longer, cost you more. You’d have bureaucracy, redundancy creeps in, and in sales it changed everything.

People didn’t give you the benefit of the doubt. They wouldn’t refer business. Whereas, when we built trust in relationships and had clients that really trusted us, it was amazing. We’d do more deals. We’d do better deals. They’d give us the benefit of the doubt, they’d refer business to us.

FELDMAN: It’s so pleasurable to do business with somebody you trust, isn’t it?

COVEY: It’s fun, yeah. It’s not just better business. It’s fun; it’s enjoyable. You’re right. There’s energy and joy as well as greater speed, lower cost.

It’s just a better world on every front. In fact, it’s interesting, Paul, there’s a lot of studies that are coming out on this right now. Paul Zak is a neuroscientist, and he published an article about a year ago in the Harvard Business Review on the neuroscience of trust.

The long and short of it is that high-trust cultures and teams are just way more energized, way more engaged with greater excitement, commitment, less stress and less burnout than low-trust teams. The data bears it out in profound ways. It’s not a little.

It’s double, triple on all these different measures. And so it kind of verifies what we all know. And there’s economics of trust and also it is an extraordinary multiplier for everything else — all the qualitative dimensions of relationships, of teams, of cultures — and that’s with your own people. It’s with clients. So in every single dimension, trust is the one thing that changes everything.

FELDMAN: What was it like growing up with Stephen R. Covey as your father?

COVEY: It was amazing, especially now as I look back at it. My dad passed away about five years ago. I realize what a gift I had.

We kids were kind of where he started his ideas. We were the guinea pigs, I like to say. And in fact, this story he tells in 7 Habits about green and clean — now that’s me. I’m that kid who he tried to teach how to take care of the yard. And so my dad really kind of honed his ideas in the home before he took them out.

FELDMAN: So, you grew up learning this from your father.

COVEY: It was like second nature to us because we were taught it all the time.

But here’s the one thing I’ll tell you, Paul, about my dad that maybe the average person would not know and that is this. That as good as my dad was in public, as a teacher and as an author, he was even better in private. As a husband to my mother, as a father to us kids. He was who you thought he was.

He had real integrity and that was the source of his power. And so sometimes people can get onstage and just dazzle an audience and then they walk backstage and they’re like a different person. My dad was good onstage and he was better offstage in how he treated everyone.

FELDMAN: And that’s the key to success in life. And he ended up building a really successful company, the Covey Leadership Center.

COVEY: Yes. At the time, we became the largest leadership development company in the world, and today we’re FranklinCovey, operating in 150 countries around the world.

So there’s really a legacy to the work that my father did with 7 Habits and principle-centered leadership and I’ve tried to build upon that and follow him with this work on Speed of Trust, which is really building on some of the foundational work he did with The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

FELDMAN: You actually ran the Covey Leadership Center, and it was a little bit trying when you started, wasn’t it?

COVEY: We had a great value proposition for our clients, and we added a lot of value. We had great content, but we didn’t have a good business model. We hadn’t figured out how to be a business yet. So even though we were creating a lot of value for people, and they loved the content, we didn’t know how to make money at it. We didn’t know how to turn it into a business.

So that was a big part of what I did, trying to figure out how to operationalize this, how to make it sustainable and how to scale it. And we did a number of those things. I really focused on the business side of being able to take this all around the world. That was really my primary focus for the first 15 or so years, and it was only after doing that that I started then to say, “Hey, I also have something to say.”

FELDMAN: You certainly did and do. So, are you now focused on bringing out your father’s message and the message of trust?

COVEY: Yes, and I feel like I can say it better because I know the business side. I come at this as a practitioner, as a doer. It was really one of the highlights of anything I could imagine, to have a chance to be able to do this with my father’s work. To institutionalize this, so that it was more than just one person. I could instead say, “What if we could take these ideas of this one person and make this really something that could impact people everywhere in the world?” And that’s what we tried to do.

FELDMAN: With the company, you doubled the sales within just a matter of years from taking over.

COVEY: Yes. We increased the profits 12 times. And I increased the value of the company many, many times. That’s really a big part of how I became clear on my message on trust is I saw how valuable it was to help us do exactly that — to grow our business, to increase our profits, to get more customers, and to see this kind of ripple and multiply.

FELDMAN: Many people probably believe that you can’t learn trust.

COVEY: And I say, “Look, you can learn trust. It is a learnable skill.” Most people kind of think, “Hey, trust. You either have it or you don’t. It’s either there or it’s not.” And I’m saying, “No, that’s your starting point; we might start with a level of trust — it might be low, medium, high.”

There’s a starting point, but in the same way that you can diminish and lose trust through your behavior, you can also consciously, deliberately create it, grow it, expand it, extend it through your behavior.

In fact, you can get good at this. Trust is a learnable skill. And that’s exciting because if I can get good at trust, what an advantage for me, for my team, for my company to be the high-trust player in a world of declining trust.

And that’s the opportunity that’s in front of everyone in this profession.

FELDMAN: And trust isn’t just about selling to clients, but it’s about your whole life.

COVEY: It’s your whole life.

Here’s the thing, Paul. You can’t talk your way out of a problem that you behaved your way into.

FELDMAN: That was one of my favorite quotes in the whole book.

COVEY: If we’ve lost people’s trust because of our behavior, words alone won’t get it back. We have to “behavior” our way back into trust. The words can help, but we have to behavior back into trust.

And some of us maybe already start from a high place. But as an industry, finance and insurance are not as high as we want to be, like the data shows.

So we’ve already started a little bit at a deficit — that’s why we want to be intentional, be deliberate about building trust on purpose and turning this into our greatest strength.


Founder, President, Publisher [email protected].

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