How Navy captain D. Michael Abrashoff turned his ship around
In June of 1997, Captain D. Michael Abrashoff boarded the USS Benfold; he was the new commanding officer. Benfold is a guided missile destroyer staffed with 310 sailors. This was Abrashoff’s first sea command, so he was undoubtedly anxious as he walked onto the ship. What he found did nothing to calm his nerves.
As was military tradition, the Navy rolls out the red carpet for a departing commander, and to welcome the new one. About two weeks before the command change, routine work stops and the entire crew prepares the ship by painting it from top to bottom and preparing the deck for a dignitary- filled reception honoring the departing skipper.
If you have seen one of these arguably you have seen them all. At the ceremony, an admiral will give a speech about the great performance of the ship’s departing commander. The event is supposed to be upbeat and full of energy. Then, to overwhelming applause, the retiring captain will stroll into the sunset.
On the afternoon of June 20, Captain Abrashoff boarded his new ship and watched the ceremony from a distance. The departing skipper looked happy to leave. He was flanked by his wife, children and mother. After kind but mostly untrue words spoken by an admiral, the public address system announced that the departing captain was walking from the ship and relinquishing command – and the ship erupted with applause. “They were jeering, blatantly relieved to get rid of him,” Abrashoff recalls. “I had never seen such open disrespect in my entire military career. I was stunned. I can still feel my face flushing with embarrassment.”
The attitude toward the ship’s departing captain was symbolic of his old fashion command-and-control style. The cold relationship between the leader and the role players was also clearly reflected in Benfold’s performance scores, as it ranked near the bottom in most matrixes in the Pacific fleet. The command rotation is about 24 months, so Abrashoff knew that if Benfold was to improve, and his departing celebration was to be at least civil, he’d need to work fast.
Commit to being the best
For Captain Abrashoff, there wasn’t any middle ground to be a poor performing ship, or even a mediocre one -- the stakes were simply too high. Every ship in the Navy’s fleet was part of a team, and each team member had to perform at a very high level. Failing to do so didn’t only mean that the ship was ranked low in matrix scores. Being a poor performer put lives at risk and in a small or large way jeopardized part of the United States’ national security.
For Abrashoff, it was excellence or bust.
To that end, early in his tenure Captain Abrashoff decided that Benfold would be the best damn ship in the Navy. Remember, to achieve this goal, he couldn’t bring in new people. The same “team” that cheered wildly when the departing Captain left were the same people that would need to take Benfold from last to first. Abrashoff said, “I decided Benfold was going to be the best damn ship in that Navy. I repeated it to my sailors all of the time, and eventually they believed it themselves.”
The path to “buy in”
Once people begin to believe they are part of something great, like the best damn ship in the Navy, they begin to see things differently. For example, when performing a task, it is no longer OK to be just “good enough” because the best damn ship does things excellently. Sailors begin to act differently when they are part of something greater than they acted when they were just another sailor on just another ship. This mind set is very important. Hearing them saying “you are best damn ship” is a start, but leaders need to support that goal, too. Here are some key steps to getting “buy in”:
• Energy: Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz in their groundbreaking book entitled, “The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal ,“ simply state that, “Leaders are the stewards of organizational energy!” Abrashoff knew that his team couldn’t get results without energy, enthusiasm and passion. He also knew that he was the one who set that tone. Abrashoff later wrote, “Leaders need to understand how profoundly they affect people, how their optimism and pessimism are equally infectious, how directly they set the tone and spirit of everyone around them.”
• Show up and listen: Have you talked to someone and after several minutes realized that he/she has not heard one word you said? He/she is not listening.
Has someone talked to you lately and you realize that you haven’t heard a word he said? Your mind has been somewhere else.
Have you been in a meeting lately and realized that no one was there. Everyone’s mind was somewhere else.
There is a simple concept called “show up.” This is when you simply concentrate on the person or task immediately in front of you and eliminate distractions. When it comes to people, showing up and listening can have a profound effect on the trust level of you team. Abrashoff said, “Shortly after I took command of Benfold, I vowed to treat every encounter with every person on the ship as the most important thing at that moment.”
• Use stainless steel bolts and nuts: For more than a hundred years sailors have spent a huge chunk of time painting the ship. Sea water can be very harsh on bolts, nuts and hardware. A thick layer of fresh paint can deter corrosion. But even if you like to paint (which few sailors do) it is busy work that takes away time from important training and classroom modules - - activities that make people better, and improve the ship’s overall performance.
One day, a 21-year-old sailor who had a paint brush in his hands a little too often had an idea. Why don’t we buy nuts and bolts that don’t rust… then we wouldn’t have to paint so much. Abrashoff loved the idea. So, armed with the ship’s credit card, a small team searched for stainless steel replacements… and now the entire Navy uses them.
• Respect, the Golden Rule: A sailor who had served the entire time for the previous Captain was stopped by that Captain one day and asked if he was a new sailor. Obviously insulted that his Captain had no idea who he was, he responded that yes, in fact he was new. The Captain proceeded to tell this sailor that he was the Captain, the one who was in charge.
Abrashoff decided that he would meet with every sailor on his ship. It started with a one-hour interview where Abrashoff was able to learn more about his crew, about their families, and individual hopes, dreams and ambitions. “Our people don’t care what we know until they know we care,” said leadership guru John C. Maxwell. Abrashoff would simply say that this interaction supports being the best damn ship.
As Captain Abrashoff’s time came to an end, his commanding officer called and asked about the closing ceremony. Abrashoff said that he didn’t want a “big deal,” and that he had something else planned. Abrashoff, using monies saved from not buying paint and other efficiencies, ordered 310 live Maine lobsters and had them overnighted to Benfold.
Over a nice lunch, Abrashoff gave the shortest change of command speech in military history; it was five words. “You know how I feel,” he said. And with that Abrashoff relinquished his command. In his first year, USS Benfold went from last to first, winning the coveted Spokane Award, which is given to the top performing ship in the Pacific fleet. Or as Abrashoff would say -- the best damn ship in the Navy.