One of the most common challenges faced by business leaders is to keep a proactive focus on what is important in the long term rather than to be consumed by reactive and urgent daily tasks. Many a courageous goal has been undermined via endless distractions. To counter this risk I find that Steven Covey’s story of the ‘big rocks’ is a great way to hold leaders accountable for what is important rather than what is urgent and so help them persist to completion.
The story of the ‘big rocks’ crops up in Covey’s global bestseller ‘The seven habits of highly effective people’. The seventh habit is ‘first things first’ and in this chapter Covey tells a story that one of his associates heard at a seminar. The seminar presenter had pulled out a jar and placed it next to a pile of fist-sized rocks. After filling the jar to the top with rocks, he asked, “Is the jar full?” The group replied, “Yes.” He then got some gravel from under the table and added it to the jar. The speaker jiggled the jar until the gravel filled the spaces between the rocks. Again, he asked, “Is the jar full?” This time, the group replied, “Probably not.” The speaker then added some sand and asked, “Is the jar full?” “No!” shouted the group. Finally, the speaker filled the jar to the brim with water and asked the group the point of this illustration. Someone replied “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard you can always fit some more things in it!” “No,” countered the speaker. The point of this illustration is, “if you hadn’t put the big rocks in first, you would you never have got them in at all”.
In the context of challenging coaching, the courageous goals that leaders set for themselves and their teams represent the big rocks. They need to be placed in the jar first yet once placed in the jar we need to hold leaders accountable to keeping them in the jar and not throwing them out in order to be distracted by gravel, sand and water.
At the outset of a coaching assignment, and once we have set the courageous goals, I like to ask my coaching clients to draw their big rocks in a jar and label these on a piece of paper. I then bring out the piece of paper at the beginning of subsequent coaching sessions and I ask them one or more of the following accountability questions:-
- ‘How have you honoured the big rocks since we last met?’
- ‘What tough decisions have you made to keep the priority of your big rocks?’
- ‘What gravel, sand and water have threatened to distract you from what is really important?’
- ‘Who else in your life is holding you accountable to the big rocks other than me?’
- ‘What support or challenge do you need from me to maintain your focus on the big rocks going forward?’
Starting a coaching session in this way sets an immediate tone of strong accountability. Like all of us, clients slip up, get distracted, change their minds and become overwhelmed yet with the knowledge that someone is regularly going to hold their feet to the fire in this way they can recover quickly from set-backs, regain their focus and re-commit to their courageous goals. Over the weeks and months of a coaching assignment this simple routine can make a huge difference to the probability of ultimate success.