As we saw in the closing paragraph from last time, Captain Abrashoff’s engagement of his ship’s crew led to truly superior combat-readiness ratings. In the end, the Benfold would become regarded as the finest ship in the Pacific Fleet, winning the Navy’s prestigious Spokane Trophy for having the highest degree of combat readiness.
In addition, the rate of military promotions tripled on the Benfold during Abrashoff’s watch. Personnel turnover, which had been at unacceptable levels under the previous leadership, decreased to an unprecedented one percent.
When engagement levels rise, everything improves: The Benfold is an outstanding example, one that demonstrates why I think engagement is job one for any manager. The ship’s all-important combat readiness ratings rose not due to stricter management controls but rather due to increased commitment to the group’s cause.
Starting with the personal conversations he held with each crew member in his private quarters, the captain was able to set a new tone, gain the trust of the sailors, and begin on the road to generating buy-in. As Abrashoff describes when he presents his views on leadership in Fast Company, a captain has to learn to “listen aggressively”, to constantly dig for new information about his people.
Beyond command and control: Abrashoff understood that most officers trained in a military organization are in “transmit mode”, and that they don’t “receive” very well. When he took over the Benfold, the young captain undertook a sizable challenge: changing the boat’s corporate culture. As we have seen, his overarching goal was to replace command and control with commitment and cohesion.
Early in this process, one of his major discoveries was simply that “it’s amazing what you find out when you listen to the crew.” Perhaps more important than what the captain learned, though, was the change in the sailors’ mindsets. As their leader opened up communication channels with everyone on the ship, the Benfold’s crew members—who had been accustomed to a system of blind obedience to orders from above—came to believe that they could have influence. They found the new environment of openness both unexpected and invigorating. To them, it was a radical new concept: when individuals had something to say, Abrashoff would actually listen.
If Abrashoff’s individual relationships with the crew members, fostered by his aggressive listening, was the first key to his ship’s transformation, a second crucial aspect in implementing change was his ability to connect everyone to a broader sense of shared mission. As he states: “One of my most critical roles is learning about who these sailors are and where they’re coming from—and linking that knowledge to the group’s purpose.”
In my own work with leaders and organizations, I have long emphasized these same two principles, encouraging all managers to cultivate deep relationships with their people, and to find ways to infuse daily tasks with a broader sense of meaning. What I learned from reading It’s Your Ship, though, was how vital these two attributes are in the life-and-death environment of a warship. In the end, Abrashoff writes, soldiers don’t put their lives on the line because they believe in a battle plan. They do it because of two things, and only two: commitment to a cause, and relationships with individuals.
Strive for the type of discipline that stems from focus on our shared purpose: The increased sense of shared mission and meaning on the Benfold led to a new form of discipline among crew members. Rather than performing tasks because the chain of command required them, sailors developed an intrinsic motivation, one that came from their sense of doing something that transcended their individual work, of participating in a worthwhile team effort. Discipline—and results—skyrocketed when Abrashoff’s crew began to believe that what they were doing was a group endeavor, and indeed an important one.
Since I am often asked to describe in precise terms how one should go about building a sense of deeper purpose in one’s team members, my next post will present some specific detail on Abrashoff’s approach, and how we can apply similar principles in other work environments.