The educational portion of the event kicked off with a presentation from Captain D. Michael Abrashoff, author of It’s Your Ship - Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy. The bestselling book, he said, is a favorite of renowned five-time Super Bowl-winning NFL football coach Bill Belichick.
When Captain Abrashoff took over as commander of the USS Benfold, a ship armed with every cutting-edge system available, it was like a business that had all the latest technology but only some of the productivity. Knowing that responsibility for improving performance rested with him, he realized he had to improve his own leadership skills before he could improve his ship. Within months he created a crew of confident and inspired problem-solvers eager to take the initiative and take responsibility for their actions. The slogan on board became "It's your ship," and the USS Benfold was soon recognized far and wide as a model of naval efficiency.
In his book, Abrashoff divulges his secrets to successful management, and he shared some of his techniques with TLMI members. He detailed his experiences managing 310 people on a ship working together. He interviewed each person on the ship, as he wanted to improve things by 1% every day. With his primary goal being retaining sailors, nine months prior to a sailor leaving he would speak with them to see how he can get them to stay. Prior to Abrashoff starting this process, he said, retainment was 8%, but he wanted to get to 32-34%.
After one year of implementing his process, the ship's retainment rate was nearly 100%.
Abrashoff decided to leave the Navy and write a book – his goal was for his book to become a bestseller. To do that, he said, you need to sell 45,000 books. Abrashoff would often show up at book signings with no one there or only a few people in attendance. So, he decided to challenge the process and do things differently. Over the last 15 years, more than a million copies of It’s Your Ship have been sold.
When Abrashoff started running his ship, he knew it was of paramount importance to earn the respect of his sailors while ensuring their safety. He knew they would never do what he needed of them if they did not respect him and believe that he had their best interests at heart.
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Abrashoff told his sailors, “You never go wrong when you do the right thing.” His mentor William Perry, the man that hired him him, advised, “I don’t need the smartest person, I need someone who can create a team and work together.”
“He would do any job – he’d walk around the ship and pick up trash with no complaints. Soon the sailors were picking it up and soon they did not leave it around,” Abrashoff said.
Realizing he had a multi-generational and multicultural workforce aboard his ship, it became apparent to Abrashoff that he needed to change the way he communicated with them. He spent more than half his day communicating with staff and telling them where they were going and why. With the goal of shifting their mindset, he told them to greet visitors and say, “Welcome to the best damn ship in the navy.” They were not the best, he said, but he wanted his sailors to know there was nothing stopping them from being the best.
Abrashoff decided to put his people ahead of him. Officers were not to go in front of the “regular” sailors, he said. “They needed to show respect for everyone’s job.”
By interviewing each sailor, Abrashoff got to know them better and used the information he gained to make the ship better. He asked the sailors what they thought should be done – this way his people could own the results.
“When people are empowered, they take accountability for their results,” Abrashoff said, adding that most of his sailors joined because they wanted to go to college but could not afford it. “They joined for the GI Bill – they needed money for college. Many people don’t realize how bright a lot of people in the service are.”
Some of the questions he asked his sailors were:
• What do you like most about this ship?
• What do you like least about this ship?
• If you could change one thing about the ship, what would it be?
• How can we have some fun on this ship? (Abrashoff decided to set up an entertainment system on the deck, where each Thursday night sailors would smoke cigars and watch the sun set.)
Abrashoff posed these questions to the TLMI members in attendance:
How can we create a culture where our people will challenge the process and help us improve? How do we be the employer of choice so people want to come and work for you?
“Your employees want to feel that they are part of the process,” Abrashoff said. “So what’s your leadership story? And how can you make it better?”
Kathleen Scully contributed to this report.