Chapter 16

Is That the Best You Can Do? Motivating People by Challenging Them

When I hired Bruce Karatz, who would go on to be the CEO of Kaufman and Broad, he was already a go-getter—a lawyer willing to give up the security of a law firm to work for a homebuilder.

For his first nonlegal assignment, I asked him to drive out to Riverside, about 90 minutes east of Los Angeles, to check out some land we were considering buying. Bruce was enthusiastic, went out there a few times, and wrote a report for me. I let a couple of days go by without responding, until Bruce came in and asked me what I thought.

“Is that the best you can do?” I asked.

Bruce looked a little worried. He said he would work on the report some more. When he brought it back, I asked him one more time: “Is that the best you can do?” He took it away, made some more revisions, and brought it back a third time. I asked him the same question again. By that time, Bruce was pretty sure he was about to be fired. He threw up his hands and said, “Yes, that’s the best I can do.”

“Good,” I replied. “Now I’ll read it.”

Bruce felt a bit jerked around, but he was a good sport—and smart enough to see that I had managed to get his finest work. I never had to pull that stunt on him again because he knew that I expected his best effort. Years later, when executives at more than 100 companies were accused of backdating stock options, Bruce’s high profile attracted the attention of federal prosecutors, who charged him with a raft of offenses. ...

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