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It was 1989. I was furiously paddling and bailing water, working to keep the business boat afloat and moving forward. Our first child, daughter Mikkel (now Vetstreet's pet behavior expert), was 4 and needed a father who was there physically and in the moment. My veterinary practice was no longer a small business, but was blessed (or saddled — it toggled between them) with three locations, and more than 160 employees, including 14 veterinarians. It was a lot for a 35-year-old former farm boy to handle, and I often felt overwhelmed and teetering.
Then came the book that changed my life: Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I don’t recall where I got the book, but I do recall starting to read it. I’m a speed reader and can read at a rate that almost seems fake, but I found with this book that I kept reading and re-reading certain early passages trying to make sense of it. It caused me to think, reflect, accept, change and plan a new path. I know they say the secret of great marketing is to be able to communicate that “we had you in mind when we created this product or service.” With this book, I so felt it was written for me that I felt that he somehow knew me and was looking over my shoulder as I read. I was ashamed and embarrassed that I hadn’t always had the abundance mentality: where you don’t have to hoard goodwill because there’s an unlimited amount to go around.
The book’s seven habits are broken into three sections: Independence or self-mastery; Interdependence; and Self-renewal. Under Independence are three habits: Be Proactive (we are responsible for our own lives), Being With The End In Mind (know where you are going to understand where you are now) and First Things First (organize and act around priorities). It was under First Things First that I had my first awakening. I was spending too much time with things that were urgent and not important (interruptions, phone calls, mail, proximate pressing matters) or urgent and important (crises, pressing problems, deadline-driven projects) and not enough time with not urgent and important activities (prevention activities, planning, relationship building, recognizing new opportunities, recreation). This recognition and acceptance would soon lead to major changes in my personal and professional life including practice retreats, new career opportunities and taking a lot more time off to be with family.
Interdependence was a key chapter that includes two habits: Think Win/Win (look for mutually beneficial solutions) and Understand—Then Be Understood (listen to how others see things). Now, rather than hammering a distributor for the best prices, I looked at the value of the whole relationship. When having meetings with veterinarians or other employees, I got inside their mind and heart before letting them inside mine.
The last section, Self-Renewal, has the last two habits: Synergize (make a whole greater than the sum of its parts) and Sharpen The Saw (take a break to renew your resources). This started a business mantra at my veterinary practices of T.E.A.M. (Together Each Achieves More). The "saw-sharpening" included quarterly clinic fun days, veterinary retreats, luxury vacations for top-performing veterinarians and the start of a monthlong vacation every year for me with my family.
For the past 23 years I’ve had the "7 Habits Self-Help Crib Sheet" pasted into the front of my Day Planner (which I take almost everywhere). My original copy of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has been loaned out to many and has more fingerprints on it than People magazine at the dentist’s office. Today the well-worn copy sits in a special place on my bookshelf. I got an audio version of the book and daughter Mikkel, now 26, has listened to it several times and has also been moved to action.
When we published my first big book, Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul, I reached out to Stephen Covey for an endorsement. I was following his first two habits to Be Proactive and Begin With The End In Mind. I thought that by getting prominent people to write endorsements, it would give this book credibility, awareness and a sales boost. It did all three as Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul made it to No. 3 on The New York Times best-seller list, selling more than 2.3 million copies and becoming the fastest best-selling pet book in history. I put Covey’s endorsement second, just under that of my friend James Herriot’s son, and here’s what he said, “The stories in Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul are powerful, heartwarming and full of life. Every story speaks to me of the special love we share with our pets. My dog Sheldon and I especially enjoyed this book.”
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has been published in 32 countries and has sold more than 25 million copies. Stephen Covey died earlier this year at age 79 from injuries suffered in April in a biking accident. He died at a hospital in Idaho Falls, Idaho, just a short distance from where I first read his book, lived, raised my kids and ran my businesses in Twin Falls.
One of these days, I’ll read his book The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness To Greatness. In the meantime, I’ll keep living and benefiting from the other 7.
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