10. Mar, 2018

7 habits of highly successful people

London Business School faculty engage with successful people every day. These highly effective people have achieved success by transforming habits that shape every aspect of their lives.

This is our unique take on Stephen R. Covey's top-seller book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The list has nothing to do with trends, it is based on proven values of wellness, openness, fairness, integrity and human progress. Here are the seven patterns of highly successful people, as observed by our experts.


1. They prioritise physical and mental wellness

Alex Edmans, Professor of Finance, London Business School


Arguably Covey’s most famous habit is to focus on the important, not the urgent. There are few more important issues than one’s health – but health is easily neglected as its consequences are felt mostly in the long run.

The physical benefits of exercise are well known. But the benefits of exercise are far more than just physical. Team sports involve being part of something greater than yourself – celebrating a goal that a team-mate scored, or passing to someone else – attributes sorely missing in the business world. Group exercise classes channel energy from those around you, and a trainer gives a crucial mental break compared to having to motivate yourself. Even solo exercise, such as running, is a refreshing break from perpetual email bombardment. Merely having a workout scheduled later in the day makes you more productive as you know you have something to look forward to.

And wellness is far more than just exercise. Despite virtually everyone knowing what healthy eating involves, few put it into practice and the developed world is becoming increasingly obese. The misguided belief that one needs to be constantly on email means that it is impossible to truly relax, even on vacation. Music has now become background noise, listened to only when commuting or working out. Social time with friends or family has become a chore distracting you from working. Showing weakness is seen as a sign of weakness, and a major stigma remains around mental health. While we blame external circumstances and busyness, we ultimately are responsible for our own choices. We are human beings, not human doings – whole persons who owe it to ourselves to experience the breadth, length, height, and depth of life.


2. They engage in perspective-taking

Gillian Ku, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour, London Business School


Having the skills – and the desire – to walk a mile in another person’s shoes is a habit worth harnessing. Yet seeing the world through a lens of diverse vantage points – particularly those different from your own – isn’t easy. It takes patience and practice. It means investing effort in understanding others’ world views, motivations, intentions and emotions. Research documents clear benefits. Perspective-taking has consistently been found to reduce prejudice and stereotyping. Evidence also suggests that perspective-taking can make teams more creative, which can lead to better decision-making outcomes, which are greatly needed in a complex, fast-paced world. Successful leaders also have a habit of enriching their view of customers and employees, managing diversity and resolving conflict through perspective-taking.

Imagining the world from another’s point of view also helps in negotiations. For instance, ruthless negotiators who have a winner-takes-all mentality may view their competitor as a nemesis. Perspective-taking reminds you that competitors are simply parties with their own interests. Like you, they are passionate, shrewd and reasonably rational – they probably see you as the nemesis. In such situations, telling yourself that you can control your own feelings but not your rivals’ is a helpful first step. What is more, actively viewing the situation from the other person’s vantage point has been shown to help negotiators see, appreciate and capitalise on these differing interests to grow the pie. Perspective-taking has also been shown to help negotiators gain a larger share of the pie.


3. They are fuelled by curiosity

Dan Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, London Business School


Curiosity is a potent emotion. When you’re curious you’re more likely to step outside your comfort zone and away from old habits. You’re more likely to think differently and work with others in new ways. We all like to think that we’re collaborative and open to new ideas, but in reality we’re often resistant to change. The process of trial and reflection is most successful when people are open to change. The art of observing or interpreting something in a different way requires a trained habit of being curious, one that I explore in my book Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do.

Literature shows that framing change as a chance to experiment and learn is important for activating the right emotions. When you frame a task as a performance situation –“I must do well or face backlash” – it triggers anxiety and you become risk averse. When you frame the same task as a learning situation – “I wonder what I’ll discover!” – it triggers curiosity and you become bolder and more determined. What’s more, if you frame a task as a chance to either succeed or fail, you end up learning less because you engage in less experimentation. In turn, this makes formulating new strategies tough as you’re more likely to fall back on old tried and tested habits.

How can you become more curious? Experimental safe zones create intrinsic motivations, which are much more powerful than extrinsic motivations because they unleash creativity. Instead of working hard, say, for fear of losing your job (extrinsic), be fuelled by your own enthusiasm and curiosity (intrinsic). Instead of being sceptical at the start, be eager to explore and push experiments further.


4. They nudge for good

Lisa Shu, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour, London Business School


Whether or not they intentionally choose the role, managers in organisations are inadvertent architects of their employees’ decision-making. Every choice they make creates a knock-on effect. From encouraging pensions savings through setting automatic enrolment as the default, to promoting nutritious choices by placing healthy food at eye level at the start of the cafeteria line – organisations nudge their employees and steer them in their everyday decision-making.

Highly successful people have a habit of nudging for good; they consciously take on the role of choice architect. Such leaders embrace the reality that even the simplest prompts in the decision context can skew people’s choices one way or another. From my own research, for instance, we know that simply asking for a signature at the beginning of the expense form – rather than the end – encourages honest expense reporting. Prompting a signature at the start of the form brings moral standards sharply into focus right when it matters most, promoting truthful reporting.

Signing first is one of many interventions that show how even the most gentle of nudges can impact behaviours and create a ripple effect of much greater financial and ethical significance. Nudge interventions are powerfully persuasive because they are subtle. These minimal cues do not limit the freedom of choice for individuals, yet they can profoundly influence important behaviours. Managers should embrace nudges as tools to shape long-term performance outcomes, through driving a greater alignment between strategy and day-to-day activities – and promoting a culture of integrity.


5. They move first in negotiations

Thomas Mussweiler, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, London Business School


Life involves daily negotiations. Buying a car, influencing at work or bargaining over who cleans the dishes: negotiating is how we get things done. To become more successful in these negotiations, people may want to develop a habit of making the first offer. This runs counter to the popular belief that you should wait for the other side to speak first. Some argue that you gain insight about your counterpart and valuable extra time to strengthen your bargaining advantage. Waiting may intuitively make sense but research suggests that, more often than not, first offers achieve better outcomes.

Why? First offers have a strong anchoring effect. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman exposed a human tendency that people heavily rely on the first piece of information they encounter such as a numeric estimate – an anchor. When people receive an initial offer, they move their own judgement towards that offer. Even experts aren’t immune to the powerful anchoring effect. In one study, my colleagues (Fritz Strack and Tim Pfeiffer) and I had customers approach German mechanics with a used car requiring repairs. After offering their own opinion of the car's value, the customers asked the mechanics for an estimate. Half of the mechanics were given a low anchor, with the customer proposing the car should sell for around DM 2,800. The other mechanics were given a high anchor, around DM 5,000. The mechanics estimated the car to be worth DM 1,000 more when the anchor was set high, proving that even an expert’s judgement can fall prey to distortions of the mind. But beware: highly successful people know when and when not to make the first offer. If you’re in a new situation and there are too many unknowns – when you just don’t know – hold tight, and wait for the other party to make the first move.


6. They focus energy on what matters

Richard Jolly, Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour, London Business School


I have met many highly successful executives in my work. Through intense pressure to perform well, these high-fliers attain their goals but bizarrely layer on more and more pressure. Effective people set incredibly high standards for themselves, they are tougher critics than any boss. Yet there’s a strange phenomenon: once they have reached their version of success – money, status, power – happiness does not always ensue. 

What is success? Often, when you drill down, you find that success stems from happiness. Highly successful people are really happy people. The universal habit of highly successful people is the ability to focus time and energy on the things that really matter. Let’s run a quick exercise: what are your top priorities? Go on, write them down. Now, look at your diary from the last three months. How much time have you spent working through them? The answer is usually: not nearly enough. Some chief executives confess to spending as little as 1% of their time on the things that will drive the future success of the business. It can feel too busy to focus on what’s important. 

The protective boundary between work and life has exploded – work has now merged with life. Stress leads to a lack of control – at home and at work – and we spend too much time on inconsequential things and pursuits we’re indifferent to or dispassionate about. So, highly successful people have the ability to be ruthless with their time. Every day, they ask, “Am I focusing my time and energy on the things that really matter?”


7. They cherish creativity and think differently

Richard Hytner, Adjunct Professor of Marketing, London Business School


Some habits in business are harmful: chief executives can get high on the stale air of sycophancy. CFOs may not always know when to end the organisation's drastic, cost-reducing diet, failing to see that the corporate body needs no further slimming. And, if not kept in check, well-intentioned CTOs can snort the words digitisation, blockchain or cyber just too often for their own good. We already know that, without them, we are heading cluelessly, cloudlessly to a world called disruption from where we, the dinosaurs, will never return.

These are all nasty habits. However, no habit in my view is more lethal than acceptance of negativity. If culture eats strategy for breakfast, negativity kills culture for sport. Like a narcotic, negativity can feel euphoric in the moment but over time it dulls the senses and in large doses causes enormous damage.

I often ask executives to share recent encounters of this toxic culture killer. Examples range from the blunt – “We simply don’t have time for this” – to the bizarre – “I know this idea is untested, but why can’t you guarantee it will make money before we test it?”

Creativity is the wholesome habit of an effective leader. Not the exclusive preserve of the crazies who inhabit marketing or innovation departments. Creativity is good for personal and collective wellbeing, and our most effective ally when we encounter new contexts and problems we have not seen before (or have seen all too often).

Hytner’s five practices for a habit of creativity and thinking differently

1. Snack little and often on curiosity between meetings. Curiosity is calorie-free and costs you nothing. Take your blinkers off, observe and ask yourself why

2. Hydrate regularly, quenching your thirst for product, service, innovation processes with the intoxicating power of positivity. Fall in love with your colleagues’ ideas, not your own

3. Inhale the fresh air of ideas way beyond the boundaries of your discipline, business, industry and market. Adopt, adapt, re-imagine, re-apply

4. Digest your problems slowly and mindfully, don’t just swallow the solution. Convene a random group, not your usual circle, to tackle a complex problem. Rip it apart, play with it and invite the group to challenge long-held assumptions about your context and customers

5. Get out of the office every day, take a stroll, and leave the device behind.