Is This Your Best Work?

Posted 03.10.2010

Yesterday, I was talking with a client who is frustrated with the amount of errors he’s receiving in financial reports provided to him by members of his team. When he reviews the reports, he regularly finds obvious errors that anyone with experience in the field should have caught on a simple review themselves. 

It’s difficult in situations like this to not blame the team member for sloppiness or laziness. Sometimes those kinds of reasons are the root cause.  Oftentimes, though, it’s due to a lack of a process to eliminate errors from the system or a lack of understanding of how the work supports bigger picture objectives.

Henrykissinger One of the quick-hit, easy to implement solutions that my client and I talked about was for him to get in the habit of asking his team members, “Is this your best work?” when they pass a report on to him. Of course, that question can lead to all kinds of useful conversations about what the standards are and need to be, why and when someone’s best work is required and what processes would need to be put in place to ensure that the best quality work is being produced. It also has the beauty of putting the responsibility for producing quality work more on the team than the leader. That’s how teams learn and grow in their capacity.

The situation reminded me of a story I’d heard about how Henry Kissinger motivated his staff to do their best when he was Secretary of State. The story is told by retired ambassador Winston Lord in a oral history project conducted at George Washington University:

WL: … Kissinger was a speechwriter. He thought speeches made policy, and he took great care on them. I did more of this later when he was in the State Department, so you'd have to go through about 20 drafts and many insults before you got to the final speech.

INT: Yeah, biographies of Kissinger have him jumping up and down on speeches. Isn't there an anecdote where… you'd written a speech and he kept having you re-write it and saying, "Can't you do any better?" and clearly he hadn't read them?

WL: Well, basically it was, I went in with a draft, and it was actually of a presidential foreign policy report. This is slightly apocryphal and not directly on your subject here, but I would go in with a draft of the speech. He called me in the next day and said, "Is this the best you can do?" I said, "Henry, I thought so, but I'll try again." So I go back in a few days, another draft. He called me in the next day and he said, "Are you sure this is the best you can do?" I said, "Well, I really thought so. I'll try one more time." Anyway, this went on eight times, eight drafts; each time he said, "Is this the best you can do?" So I went in there with a ninth draft, and when he called me in the next day and asked me that same question, I really got exasperated and I said, "Henry, I've beaten my brains out – this is the ninth draft. I know it's the best I can do: I can't possibly improve one more word." He then looked at me and said, "In that case, now I'll read it."

Let me be the first to acknowledge that asking for nine drafts of the same report without looking at the first eight is carrying things to the extreme. The story, does, however, illustrate that it’s possible to encourage your team members to raise their game without a lot of heavy duty, in the weeds intervention from you.

What tactics and strategies have worked for you in getting your team to raise their game?