The story of Captain Abrashoff and his command of USS Benfold has become legendary inside and outside the Navy. By governing his ship with his unique management techniques, Abrashoff turned the Benfold into a model of naval efficiency, with amazing cost savings, the highest gunnery score in the Pacific Fleet, and a highly motivated and top performing crew. In IT'S YOUR SHIP, he first demonstrated how to bring his successful management techniques from the ship to the boardroom. Now, in his newest book IT'S OUR SHIP, in the same rugged, can-do voice, Abrashoff will focus on the leadership, motivational, and management insights and tips that he has learned from his last six years of addressing business and corporate audiences. Abrashoff's timely advice will be eminently prescriptive, and will feature anecdotes and insights from leaders of businesses large and small and from public and non-profit sectors.
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May 11, 2008
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Excerpt from It's Our Ship by D. Michael Abrashoff
MY FIRST INKLING OF THE SIZE OF THE JOB CAME AT 1:21 in the afternoon of June 20, 1997, after I formally assumed command of USS Benfold.
When a Navy ship changes hands, all routine work stops two weeks prior to the event. The crew paints the ship from top to bottom, sets up a big tent on the flight deck, arranges chairs for dignitaries, and unrolls a red carpet for the obligatory admiral, who delivers a speech on the outstanding performance of the ship's departing skipper. A reception follows. Waves of good feeling saturate the event as the former commanding officer is piped ashore.
My predecessor was accompanied by his family as he left the ship. And when the public-address system announced his final departure, much of the crew was not disappointed to see him go. I can still feel my face flushing with embarrassment when I remember how some didn't give him a respectful send-off.
Truthfully, my first thought as I watched this spectacle was about myself. How could I ensure that my eventual departure wouldn't be met with relief when I left the ship in two years? I was taking over a very tough crew who didn't exactly adore their captain.
The crew would probably dislike me, I thought, if for no other reason than that I represented old-fashioned and perhaps obsolete authority. That was okay; being likable is not high among a ship captain's job requirements. What is essential is to be respected, trusted, and effective. Listening to those raucous jeers, I realized that I had a long way to go before I really took command of Benfold.
I knew that I would have to come up with a new leadership model, geared to a new era. And this awkward reception underlined for me just how much the workplace had changed in military as well as in civilian life.
Never before had employees felt so free to tell their bosses what they thought of them. In the long economic boom, people were not afraid of losing their jobs. Other jobs awaited them; even modestly qualified people moved from one company to another in a quest for the perfect position they believed they richly deserved.
However the economy is doing, a challenge for leaders in the twenty-first century is attracting and retaining not just employees, but the best employees--and more important, how to motivate them so that they work with passion, energy, and enthusiasm. But very few people with brains, skills, and initiative appear. The timeless challenge in the real world is to help less-talented people transcend their limitations.
Pondering all this in the context of my post as the new captain of Benfold, I read some exit surveys, interviews conducted by the military to find out why people are leaving. I assumed that low pay would be the first reason, but in fact it was fifth. The top reason was not being treated with respect or dignity; second was being prevented from making an impact on the organization; third, not being listened to; and fourth, not being rewarded with more responsibility. Talk about an eye-opener.
Further research disclosed an unexpected parallel with civilian life. According to a recent survey, low pay is also number five on the list of reasons why private employees jump from one company to another. And the top four reasons are virtually the same as in the military. The inescapable conclusion is that, as leaders, we are all doing the same wrong things.
Since a ship's captain can't hand out pay raises, much less stock options, I decided that during my two years commanding Benfold, I would concentrate on dealing with the unhappy sailors' top four gripes. My organizing principle was simple: The key to being a successful skipper is to see the ship through the eyes of the crew. Only then can you find out what's really wrong and, in so doing, help the sailors empower themselves to fix it.
A simple principle, yes, but one the Navy applauds in theory and rejects in practice. Officers are told to delegate authority and empower subordinates, but in reality they are expected never to utter the words "I don't know." So they are on constant alert, riding herd on every detail. In short, the system rewards micromanagement by superiors--at the cost of disempowering those below. This is understandable, given the military's ancient insistence on obedience in the face of chaos, which is essential in battle. Moreover, subordinates may sidestep responsibility by reasoning that their managers are paid to take the rap.
A ship commanded by a micromanager and his or her hierarchy of sub-micromanagers is no breeding ground for individual initiative. And I was aiming for 310 initiative-takers-a crew ready, able, and willing to make Benfold the top-rated ship in the fleet.