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GILD 2013: Turning a ship around

October 11, 2013

What do you do when you are the most junior commanding officer in the Pacific Fleet and you are selected to become Commander of a ship plagued with low morale and poor performance results? If you are Navy Captain Mike Abrashoff, you turn it around to become the best ship in the Pacific Fleet. How does that happen?

Obsess About the Things You Can Change

First, he had to stop playing the victim and start obsessing about the things that he could change. He couldn’t fire anyone. He couldn’t change the Navy. But he could change his ship. And he could set a standard of expectation and show an interest.

Let People Innovate

Then, he empowered everyone on the ship to challenge how they do business every day. His philosophy was API: assume positive intent–people want to do a good job. If they had a great idea, he removed the fear of telling it to the chain of command. And the sailors started to take ownership–they became connected to their work. Six months later a sailor came to Mike and said that it hadn’t seemed like they’d done anything radically different over that time, they just incrementally improved every aspect of operations. But then he woke up that morning and realized that they had radically transformed how they ran the ship.

Communicate Better

When he viewed the organization through the crew’s eyes, he realized that he needed to communicate better with them. He connected with the sailors on their terms, not his. He used to find it difficult to talk about core values and didn’t think he was good at it, but he found that the crew was hungry for it. It was a multigenerational and multicultural workforce and he needed to communicate with them in a way they would understand. And the better he communicated, the better the ship became.

Reward Great Work

Mike looked for opportunities to give his sailors a pat on the back. He gave validation, which gave recipients confidence to step up to the plate. He was authorized to give out 15 medals a year and he would carry them around, awarding them on the spot if he found someone doing something great. In fact, he gave out 115 medals in that first year.

Put Your People First

Mike built incredible loyalty among his crew when he fought for them without having anything to gain for himself. He noted what a simple and powerful signal we send to our people when we put them first. It’s the seemingly insignificant signals we send that reverberate throughout the organization.

Don’t Be Insubordinate

Mike implemented many unorthodox solutions, but he never broke the rules and he never misled his superiors. He understood that there’s a difference between asking permission to do things and informing the chain of command that you’re doing them. He took advantage of the practice of UNODIR, which means, unless otherwise directed, I’m going to do this. They were never asked, but nor were they ever blindsided.

The Top-Down Organization Is a Dinosaur

Mike succeeded in turning around the U.S.S. Benfield because he created an organization of trust and empowerment. The military is traditionally one of the most top-down cultures out there. But all the armed services are now coming around to this approach and are becoming more entrepreneurial.

Are you the captain that your crew would choose to lead them through tough times?

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