“Be Proactive”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve no doubt heard that admonition. And you may even recognize that two-word mantra as Habit 1 of Stephen Covey’s classic book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

That habit is about taking responsibility for your own life. It’s about refusing to blame genetics, circumstances, or conditions for your behavior. It’s about deliberately choosing to take charge.

In today’s Covid-obsessed world, being proactive is more timely than ever.

On the 30th anniversary of the publication of the 7 Habits book, I talked with Stephen Covey’s son Sean. In the first part of this conversation, we talked about avoiding victim-itis (see “7 Habits: A Classic Somehow Gets Even Better With Age”). Here we explore real world implications of facing challenges proactively. 

Rodger Dean Duncan: During times of stress (like a pandemic or economic downturn), in what ways can being proactive help businesses prepare for the future?

Sean Covey: Just remember that although we are not free to choose what happens to us, we are free to choose what to do about it. This applies to individuals and to organizations. Although this coronavirus pandemic has caused a lot of stress and chaos, there are also silver linings. If businesses are proactive and take initiative, they can find ways to mitigate the effects of a downturn and survive and in some cases even pick up market share. 

Duncan: Can you give an example?

Sean Covey

Covey: We have a client in Thailand who is a great example of this. A few years back, Thailand was experiencing the heaviest rainy season in 50 years. Immense floods drove 13 million people from their homes, and more than 800 people died. It was reported to be the fourth most expensive natural disaster in world history.

Particularly hard hit was our client, a world-class maker of data-storage systems. Their vast manufacturing facility went under nearly six feet of water, devastating an operation that required a zero-dust environment. It was an epic calamity. Experts estimated it would take a billion dollars and at least seven months of cleanup to get even a part of the factory back on-line. Some market reports even predicted the end of the company, which would leave nearly 35,000 workers without jobs.

Our client’s leaders refused the notion that it would take years to get back to work, and they were not going to wait to be rescued. The leadership team had been trained in the 7 Habits, and they had worked to make the principles their “core operating system.” So, drawing on years of practicing, they put Habit 1: Be Proactive, to the ultimate test.

They immediately spread the word that there would be no layoffs—their employees were like family, and they would get on their feet as one. The safety of their people was their first priority. Crews were organized to help the most stricken employees in their flooded homes. Next up, they hired Thai Navy crews to salvage irreplaceable equipment and get it to dry land for refurbishing.

While the plants of other big companies in their industrial park rusted in the mud, their workers laid off, the work at our client’s site continued nonstop. Surely it made a difference to keep everyone on the payroll, but rebuilding the business as a team came naturally to these remarkable workers. Tens of thousands, many still trying to cope with crises at home, showed up to revive their plant. Some traveled miles each day from refugee centers, often in small boats or on water oxen for hours a day, determined to help.

Duncan: So what was the result?

Covey: They reopened the plant only 15 days after the waters receded. Within a year, it had reclaimed the number-one position in the market. The firm remained profitable and even managed to acquire one of its top competitors. Observers were astonished that it hadn’t taken billions of dollars and many years to recover. All it took was a superb team willing to wade through mud for each other. That is the power of a proactive culture.

Duncan: What can an organization do to foster a proactive culture?

Covey:  As in the case of the company I just told you about, it starts with the leaders. So much of the culture of a company is a result of the collective behavior of its leaders.

Other things you can do is be transparent and face reality. Don’t try to hide the truth of the brutal situation you may find yourself in. Transparency and facing reality build trust in the organization.

As well, learn to focus your time and energy on your circle of influence, rather than your circle of concern, or things you can’t do anything about. Instead of focusing on how hard hit your business is because of the coronavirus and all the things you can no longer do, think about what you can do. Get creative. Think outside the box. Ask yourself, “Sure, we are in bad conditions. But what can we do? What is within our control? What new opportunities are out there?”

When this pandemic arrived, because we do so much live training as a company, it really hit us hard. But we kept asking ourselves, “What can we do about it?”  Within a few weeks we converted all of our live training workshops into live-online training, or training done with organizations through teleconferencing.

At first, we and our clients were somewhat uncomfortable with it. But we’ve now found that it can be very effective, and in some cases, even more effective. As well, our clients are loving it. And it’s saving our business! Once we get back to normal operations, I believe we will be doing lots of live training like before, but we will also be doing lots of live-online teleconferencing training.

In a matter of two months, because we took a proactive approach, we have literally created a whole new delivery channel. This never would have happened without the challenge of the pandemic.

This column was first pubished by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.

Rodger Dean Duncan