"Is this the best that you can do?" This simple but powerful question is what the regional managing director of a leading multinational asks his team on everything they undertake.
Over dinner, he shared with me that each time anyone forwards work to him for his review, puts a presentation or report together, or even prepares a proposal he asks them this question.
The surprising part is his team members often respond by saying, "No, I can do better."
Whether or not he knowingly borrowed this from Henry Kissinger, who it is reported followed the same practice, what impressed me by this question is it encapsulates the essence of what it means to be a great leader - to get the best results by helping everyone to get even better.
His aim is very simple and straight to the point: before you ask me to spend my time doing my best, make sure you have done yours. Imagine the impact this has on creating a culture of quality and continuous improvement. This same leader told me he asked a new team he is taking over to rate their current capability utilisation.
And another stark, yet surprising, response was the self-proclaimed 30 to 40 per cent capability utilisation. Really, I wasn't that surprised, as my hunch from talking to leaders over the years is capability utilisation is averaging about that rate.
Again, the director went on to focus on helping the team to get better and asked them to list their priorities. This was followed by a review of their calendars to explore how present the priorities were. Unfortunately, very little time was being spent on the priorities, while a lot was being wasted on matters such as internal meetings and reporting, or as I like to call it, organisational navel gazing.
One regional vice president ran into a similar issue when he discovered an alarming reality when he checked to see how many hours per week his leadership team was spending in internal meetings.
He quickly recognised this was standing in the way of the business getting better so he limited the number of hours for internal meetings to five per week. He encouraged his team to spend their freed-up time on their priorities.
The straightforwardness of these practical examples reiterates what we, as leaders, need to be doing - championing quality and continuous improvement. Leadership needs to move past the practiced axiom of measuring quality and replace it with striving for continual improvement.
Of course, this does require measuring it to ensure work is completed to higher standards.
Great leaders constantly look for and act upon opportunities to improve employee and business performance. This is embodied in doing something better, faster, at a lower cost or more sustainably and so forth. Leaders need to continually challenge conventional practices and encourage others to overcome them. Collectively, this will result in significant changes that add considerable value to the business all while employees gain pride in their work.
To look for better ways of doing things, we can start by following the examples above and freeing time to focus on priorities and asking the simple question: "Is this the best you can do?"
Maybe we should begin by asking that of ourselves.
Tommy Weir, an authority on fast-growth and emerging market leadership, adviser and the author of The CEO Shift, is the founder and managing director of the Emerging Markets Leadership Centre