A Coaching Story

Here’s a quick coaching story that I’ve heard for years from various leaders. This particular version is attributed to Winston Churchill, but I’ve also heard it credited to Henry Kissinger and Harry Truman (perhaps the whole story is just a legend; no matter, it’s still a great story!).

Here’s how the story goes… one of Churchill’s assistants was asked to write a report on something to do with the War Department. He worked all night to get it done, and walks into Churchill’s office to deliver the report.  Churchill looks at him and asks: “Is this your best work?”  The assistant says “yes.”  Churchill asks again: “Is this your best work?”  The assistant thinks about it for a moment, and since he knows it’s not his best work, he grabs it and says: “I can do better” and goes back to work on it.

After several more hours of work, he brings the next version of the report to Churchill, who asks: “Is this your best work?” At this point, the assistant is starting to get the message, and realizing it is still not his best work, takes the report and goes back to work.  The next day, the assistant walks into Churchill’s office, hands him the report, and says: “Mr. Churchill, here is my best work.”  Churchill replies: “Good, now I will read it.”

What’s the moral of the story? Don’t accept mediocre work from your team, and by all means, don’t do their work for them.  When’s the last time you “finished” something for one of your directs?  Maybe you polished a deck, or finished writing a report for them.  Why?  It’s your job to manage their performance and coach them to new levels of excellence, not to “settle” for average results or serve as a backstop for their work product.

The next time you feel yourself accepting less than your direct reports’ best, think about the Churchill story. Heck, you can even use his phrase – “is this your best work?”  Try it, and see what happens.  At the very least, you’ll be opening up an interesting conversation about a commitment to excellence.