How to build cultures of engagement

How to build cultures of engagement

submarine_SteveReturning to a theme from our last post, the most effective leaders engage others in a group culture by creating a space where people want to come, to participate, to express themselves, to contribute their energy and passion, and to feel part of something meaningful.

Stories of people who are able to create these types of cultures within large organizations have special appeal for me, no matter what the field. Some of my best leadership examples come from the world of sports, the military, or the arts, as well as from business or politics. Leaders who build extraordinary group cultures understand this simple truth: If they focus on their possibilities rather than on the limitations of their context, they have the potential to influence their worlds in profound and enduring ways.

About a decade ago, I received a gift from a friend; it was a copy of a book called It’s Your Ship. The author, former Navy Captain Mike Abrashoff, recounts his taking command of one of the worst-performing ships in the US Pacific Fleet, and how it became—only 12 months later—the highest-rated ship in the entire Navy. Remarkably, this was accomplished without changing the crew members.

I was so impressed by this tale of team building that I have often referred to it in my work with corporations, and in my coaching of individuals. In particular, managers who are frustrated by their lack of influence in cumbersome, hierarchical systems would do well to consider the situation of a Navy ship commander such as Abrashoff.

The US Navy, notwithstanding its reputation for excellence in combat and leadership development, remains an organization whose corporate culture emphasizes conformity and compliance. It is a vast system that relies on a strict chain of command and well-defined “standard operating procedures”.

Captain Abrashoff understood full well that he could not change the Navy, nor did he want to. Rather, he took it upon himself to change his ship. Thus, his goal was to do the best he could within a clearly defined sphere of influence. As he described: “Ultimately, I consider it my job to improve my little 300-person piece of society.”

The tale of change on Abrashoff’s battleship is an outstanding example of organizational transformation, in what must be seen as difficult circumstances. Let’s look a bit more closely at what happened, and at what we might learn:

In July 1997, Abrashoff took over as commander of the Benfold, a guided-missile destroyer armed with $1 billion worth of sophisticated weapons and manned by a crew of 310 men and women. At the time, morale on the battleship was shockingly low, and turnover unacceptably high. Few of Abrashoff’s superiors thought the situation could improve. Perhaps that is why they decided to give the commander’s job to such a relatively green, untested officer.

Suddenly, the Benfold was under the control of one of the youngest commanding officers in the Navy’s Pacific Fleet. And, the minute that Abrashoff stepped onto the ship, he understood that he indeed had his work cut out for him.

One of the first things he noticed was the absence of camaraderie among the crew. They were respectful and courteous, but there was little spontaneous conviviality, and no sign of enthusiasm for their work. Most of the sailors were not sad to see their former captain leave; he had been an “old school” manager, extremely authoritarian and rigid. Crew members described him as arrogant, unapproachable, and always right, no matter what.

As I wrote last time, the most effective group leaders achieve sustained engagement of those around them. While individuals do this in their own unique ways, I have found that managers who infuse their teams with high levels of commitment often share two behaviors. First, they cultivate deep and ongoing relationships with the individual members, not just with the group as a whole. And second, they succeed in inspiring their followers by connecting them to a quest, a meaningful mission, something greater that transcends the work itself.

In Abrashoff’s case, one of his first and most crucial decisions was to focus intently on his relationship with each crew member. It was a time-consuming process, but the best way he could think of to replace command and control with commitment and cohesion. As he described in an article in the May 2003 issue of Fast Company, “You cannot order people to become cohesive. You cannot order great performance. You have to create the culture and climate that make it possible. You have to build the bonds of trust. In my time on the Benfold, I found that the only way to do that was one crew member at a time.”

 Image: Flickr-user Steve

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