Saving a culture: Going from worst to first
U.S. Navy Captain Mike Abrashoff was given command of the USS Benfold at age 36, making him the youngest commanding officer in the Pacific fleet. His challenge was daunting: the destroyer with 310 sailors was a notable loser, with low morale and the highest turnover in the Navy.
Many safety and health pros early in their careers face the challenge of establishing their credibility. And pros of all ages can confront the struggle of saving a sinking culture. Captain Abrashoff pulled off a cultural comeback on the Benfold in just 12 months. With the same crew he inherited, the ship rose to the rank of number one in performance.
How did he do it?
You can read about it in his best-selling book, “It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy.” Or you might hear him give a keynote, as I did at SafeStart’s Human Factors conference held this past November in Nashville.
The captain ditched the traditional military command and control leadership approach. He believed top-down leadership was a dead end. Instead, he got out of the captain’s chair and spent his days walking the ship.
It’s the old management by walking around. This leadership style was accompanied by Abrashoff’s belief that no one is perfect, that you must as a leader keep things in perspective. Mistakes will happen; problems will arise. See the bigger picture The captain had one-on-one interviews (or job safety contacts as safety author and pioneer Dan Petersen called them decades ago) with all 310 of his charges. He sold ownership. If there is a problem, he’d say, “It’s your ship. What would you do?”
In these one-on-ones, Abrashoff would ask more questions than talk or lecture. “What are you most proud of?” “Why did you hire on here?” “How’s the family?” “What do you like most about your job? What do you like least?”
“Communicate, communicate, communicate,” he told the conference crowd. “Never ask a question if you’re not going to give feedback. Direct, in-your-eye feedback. Given in a matter of fact, straight-talking way. You’re not being emotional.”
Dealing with resistance
The captain used this approach on his ship with the few he calls “CAVE dwellers – Citizens Against Virtually Everything.” Your resistors, the apathetic, the culture-wrecking crew. He estimates only one or two percent of his 310-member “workforce” fit this description. Meeting with them, he’d stick to facts. Facts about their performance, or lack thereof. Referencing facts was crucial. “On this day, you did this and this.” State your objections and your objectives. Show, don’t tell, your values. And empower your people to challenge the process. Anyone can speak up and challenge, without retribution.
On the Benfold, Abrashoff developed a professional reputation of saying, “We’ll find a way to ‘yes.’ It’s not about ‘no.’” His goal: create a mindset, a culture of getting to yes. Leaders get the ideas, the problems solved, the attitudes and performance they want, by establishing camaraderie, creating an esprit de corp. Easier said than done. It takes a certain servant leadership style. Let your people know, through those one-on-ones, how you feel about them. You’ve got their back, and they know it.
Scott Geller calls this “actively caring.” This is how you get your people to think harder, reach deeper for better ideas, solutions to problems. They’re motivated because they know you care.
Actions speak louder
“Show, don’t tell” was one of the captain’s leadership practices. Modeling behavior is critical. “Know that you are being watched. So send everyone a signal,” he says. Abrashoff would accompany specialists on audit checks. It was an opportunity to show the standards he expected.
It was also an opportunity to accentuate the positive. On his walkarounds the captain was always on the lookout to catch people doing the right thing, and give them immediate recognition for it. “A pat on the back. A ‘thank you.’ ‘Thanks for going the extra mile.’ This doesn’t cost a dime. And you’re giving your people validation for their efforts,” he says.
It’s also how you gain trust. “You can’t order that. Trust drives performance,” he told the SafeStart audience of about 450.
From his mentor, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, Abrashoff learned these ingredients of leadership:
- Teamwork and a sense of shared responsibility among the crew is a must;
- Blend your technical expertise with humility;
- Check your ego at the door; there’s no positive in arrogance;
- Ask for input and ideas;
- Treat every subordinate with respect and dignity. Equality, fairness, is paramount.
On Captain Abrashoff’s last day as commander of the Benfold, a farewell address of sorts is customary. The captain’s was probably one of the shortest in Navy history. All of seven words. “You know how I feel about you.”
He later learned, from an email from one of the crew, that after he departed that day, there wasn’t a dry eye on the ship. The same crew of a ship with one of the worst performance rankings in the Navy had been transformed in a year.
— Dave Johnson, ISHN Editor,