It’s Your Ship   It's Your Ship! Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy

(audiobook)

by D. Michael Abrashoff 

 

This is a here's-how-I-did-it book.  You know the type: books where someone who has accomplished something publicly gives their version of what they accomplished and how and why they accomplished it.  Such stories are just that: stories.  They may be true stories and accurately reflect not only what happened and what the author was thinking at the time, but also key insights are strategies to be learned from that experience.  On the other hand, they may be a substantial revision and retroactive reassessment of motivation and intentionality.  Regardless, they are not objective, broad-based, rigorous studies of leadership, management, or techniques.

 

With that in mind, however, they sell by the millions because, like all stories, true or not, they can help us understand, grasp, and apply lessons that we may not have learned from our own direct experience.  I suspect this is why Harry Truman is reported to have said "Readers of good books, particularly books of biography and history, are preparing themselves for leadership. Not all readers become leaders. But all leaders must be readers."  And stories are more accessible to most people than objective, scientific, reports.  For example, I listened to a good bit of this tape while my younger son, Patrick, was riding with me.  He was 12 at the time.  Not only did he not ask me to turn it off, he would ask me to keep it on or turn it on.  He liked the stories.

 

As with all audio books, this note will be more a record of what stuck in my mind and less an analysis and review of the book.  So, what did stake in my mind?

 

Meeting the sailors: Abrashoff recounts how he made time early in his command of the USS Benfold to invite every sailor to his office for a get-acquainted meeting.  This was an act of deliberate time management as he scheduled five of these meetings a day.  He apparently had a structure, or least some pre-planned questions, that included how the sailor was enjoying his service in the Navy, why she joined, and what he hoped for the future.  This brings to mind several points from other management books:

  • “First, who” from Good to Great
  • the concept of strengths-based management from Now, Discover Your Strengths
  • the importance for a new leader to listen to a new organization and learn its culture -- for example see the the account by Arthur C. Martinez of his first days with Sears in The Hard Road to the Softer Side: Lessons from the Transformation of Sears.

 

See the ship through the sailors' eyes, and trust them: Abrashoff made a real effort to see the ship and naval service through the eyes of the sailors.  This led him to listen to them when they suggested changes, and to look for changes on his own, that would make their service on the ship and more enjoyable, satisfying, and productive.  As a result, he did things such as used his flexibility to purchase blue, customized Gore-Tex all-weather gear which his crew loved and wore constantly in comparison to the standard Navy issue, which they hated.  (Also interesting how a higher ranking captain was upset by this because it made the sailors on his ship jealous and created problems for him because they wanted the same thing. He tried to order Abrashoff not to let his men wear theirs!)

 

Another example and the way he approached it, suggests another lesson:

                                        

Invest in the capacity of your people, and trust them: one of the first things Abrashoff wanted to do was to improve the quality of the food on the ship. He talked with his purchasing officer about using flexibility in naval regulations to purchase higher quality ingredients, sent his cooks to culinary school, then trusted them to produce a better result --  a much superior approach than simply calling in the cooks and haranguing them about the food.  He also acted on this principle when he cross-trained personnel until he was three deep at every station, then allowed the junior personnel significant responsibilities in critical situations.  He had an officer who not done it before command a night refueling operation.  He allowed a lower ranking enlisted sailor who had studied for the chance to be, I can't remember the name, but it's the person in charge of the deck that announces visitors, then backed her up and kept trusting her when she muffed the announcement of a fleet commander’s arrival on her first watch.  He brought in an SAT test administrator to help some sailors who wanted to go to college, and ended up with one scoring in excess of 1400. And so forth, and so on, over and over again.  Again, memorable stories that illustrate an important principle.

 

The maximum possible performance of an organization (and an individual) is always surprisingly high, but you have to take risks to get it.  Several stories stand out here.  There was the time the Benfold was engaged in an exercise in which two specially-designed ships failed in their primary task of air defense.  In desperation, the officer in command of the fleet directed the Benfold to step in.  Because of the passion, engagement, and depth of the training of his crew, the Benfold successfully executed air defense for the operation, a task for which it was neither designed are equipped in comparison to the ships that had failed. 

 

On another occasion, one of his enlisted crew members, taking to heart the culture of training, preparation, advancement, and self-improvement that had come to exist on the Benfold, studied the manuals for a new nuclear control communications system, and figured out how to solve a communications block in the main command-and-control communications system that was threatening serious disruption during the 1997 Gulf crisis.  And, once Abrashoff was finally able to sell the upper brass on attempting what his sailor had figured out, he made the sailor the expert who flew around to other ships instructing personnel on the new approach.  And, he took him to the meeting of officers about the new system to brief that august group.  When the sailor left the Navy, Abrashoff recounts that he was snatched up by the White House for communications security!

 

Great team members make great teams.  Abrashoff was not top-of-his-class at the Academy.  He apparently did well in his major area of political science, which may have been a foreshadowing of his ultimate development as a leader, but he struggled with the significant quantity of math and science courses required of all academy graduates.  However, shortly into this Navy career, he was selected to be on the staff of the Secretary of the Navy.  Later, when he asked the Secretary why he was selected over other officers with better collegiate credentials and more prestigious early assignments in the Navy, the Secretary reported that his staff felt they could work with Mike the best.  In focusing on the "first, who", it's important to remember that the capacity to be a ”star” in any position includes the capacity to work well as a team member.

 

Eating with the sailors.  Captain Abrashoff tells how, early in his command, he noticed that his officers habitually went to the front of the line at the major weekend cookouts, got their food, and then went up to the officers area to eat.  The next week, Abrashoff simply went to the rear of the line.  One of his officers soon came down and said, "Captain, you can go to the front of the line."  "No, I'm fine here," he replied.  He stayed in the line, chatting with sailors, and when he had his food, sat down with the them to eat.  The next week, his officers began emulating that behavior, with consequent improvements in their understanding of, identification with, and ability to lead the sailors.  Likewise, when the fleet Admiral visited the Benfold, Abrashoff took him to eat in the enlisted mess, waited in line, then separated from the Admiral and allowed him to eat at a table with the sailors.  The Admiral later said it was one of the best experiences of his naval career, and that he would make it a policy to eat with the sailors every time he visited a ship.

 

Questions:

  • Who are our sailors?
  • Have we met our sailors in a sit-down, personal, private meeting?
  • Are we seeing the ship through the sailors’ eyes?
  • Are we investing in the capacity of our sailors, and do we trust them?
  • Have we got great team members?
  • Do we listen to ideas from the sailors, back them up, and make them the stars when their ideas succeed?

June, 2003