When the U.S. Navy chose Mike Abrashoff to become Commander of USS Benfold, the challenges which faced him were seemingly overwhelming. At the time, the Benfold was one of the worst-performing ships in the Navy; a “dysfunctional ship with a sullen crew that resented being there and could not wait to get out of the Navy.” Abrashoff himself was only 36, the youngest commanding officer in the Pacific Fleet. Despite all of these challenges, less than three years later, Abrashoff transformed Benfold into the highest-performing ship in the Navy and personnel turnover decreased to an unprecedented 1%.
How was Abrashoff able to engineer such a startling turnaround?
Abrashoff established a management philosophy he called “The Leadership Roadmap.” The core of his approach replaced command and control leadership with commitment and cohesion. According to Abrashoff, the most important thing that a captain can do is to see the ship through the eyes of the crew:
I began with the idea that there is always a better way to do things, and that, contrary to tradition, the crew’s insights might be more profound than even the captain’s. Accordingly, we spent several months analyzing every process on the ship. I asked everyone, “Is there a better way to do what you do?” Time after time, the answer was yes, and many of the answers were revelations to me.
This reinforces one of my own management guidelines: Employees can do their job better than I can do it myself.
Abrashoff believes organizations run by micromanagers foster a culture of micromanagement. They create rules and policies that attempt to prepare for every possible contingency. Over course, this isn’t possible. People working in these organizations don’t show individual initiative — they simply follow the rules. Anyone who tries to think for themselves quickly becomes cynical or quits.
On the other hand, great organizations encourage everyone to share responsibility. Rather than creating useless rules, they rely on principles and guidelines which allow for exceptions and interpretation. Great organizations teach people make decisions for themselves.
To reinforce this philosophy, Abrashoff used the mantra “It’s your ship.” It’s catchy and memorable so it’s not surprising he titled his best-selling book It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy. The management techniques may have been developed in the Navy but they are applicable to all organizations.
We can all learn to manage by sailing around.