March 24, 2006
Excerpts: It's Your Ship by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff
It's Your Ship: Management Tips from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy is a guide to some of the management techniques learned by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff while aboard the USS Benfold. This particular excerpt is about relating with people. It holds a lot of weight with the digital world in which we're living. It's easy to lose the personal contact with fellow colleagues. In this excerpt, Cpt. Abrashoff provides insights to his methods for motivating and relating to people.
BUILD UP YOUR PEOPLE
LEADERSHIP, AS I HAVE SAID, IS MOSTLY THE ART OF doing simple things very well. However, we sometimes make it far tougher than it needs to be. Unlike some leaders, I prefer to build myself up by strengthening others and helping them feel good about their jobs and themselves. When that happens, their work improves, and my own morale leaps.
I left drill-sergeant bullying to other leaders with other goals. Running Benfold demanded brains and initiative, not brawn. Only competent and self-confident sailors could handle the ships complexities and fulfill its missions. These sailors could not be sculpted into a fighting crew by ruling with fear and punishing them as though they were inept kids. My job was to turn kids into grown-ups who would make Edward Benfold proud.
I focused on building self-esteem. I know that most of us carry around an invisible backpack full of childhood insecurities, and that many sailors often struggled under the load of past insults, including being scorned at home or squashed at school. I could make the load either heavier or lighter, and the right choice was obvious. Instead of tearing people down to make them into robots, I tried to show them that I trusted and believed in them.
Show me a manager who ignores the power of praise, and I will show you a lousy manager. Praise is infinitely more productive than punishmentcould anything be clearer? But how many managers give this fact more than lip service? How many really
live it? Not enough.
The same principle applies when youre dealing with bosses: Never tear them down; help them grow strong. If you want to achieve anything in a large bureaucracy, get inside the bosses heads. Anticipate what they want before they know they want it. Take on their problems; make them look so good that you become indispensable. When they cant get along without you, they will support nearly anything you seek to accomplish.
little things make big successes.
Within a couple of months of my taking over, other ship commanders began visiting Benfold to find out how we were getting our sailors to work so well. I was delighted to share all our secrets. They were hardly profound; mainly, we were attentive to peoples feelings and potential. A lot of seemingly small gestures added up to a friendly and supportive atmosphere.
For example, I ordered a big supply of greeting cards that read, The Officers and Crew of the USS Benfold Wish You a Happy Birthday. Each month my ships office gave me a birthday list of my sailors spouses. I would write, say, Dear Marie at the top and sign it Love, Mike. Every card included my P.S. saying, Your husband or wife is doing a great job, even if he or she were not. I knew the cards worked because sailors often came by to express their appreciation. It was my way of bringing their families into our orbit.
The CO of one of our sister ships loved the idea and immediately ordered his executive officer to send out birthday cards to the spouses of all his sailors. Of course he meant they should be sent out at the appropriate timeon the spouses birthdays. The next day a years worth of cards went out on the same day in one huge batch. Ouch. But in fact, this was symptomatic of that shipthe officers were good, but they sometimes didnt get things quite right. They werent Benfold s officers. I think they hit a performance ceiling because they didnt create a supportive climate that encouraged sailors to reach beyond their own expectations. Ultimately, that was Benfold s edge.
I observed that most of my young sailors came from hardscrabble backgrounds and had struggled to make it into the Navy. I put myself in their parents shoes and imagined how they would feel if they got letters from their kids commanding officer, and I imagined how the kids would feel when their parents told them. I began writing letters to the parents, especially when their sons or daughters did something I could honestly praise. When the letters arrived, the parents invariably called their children to say how proud they were of them. To this day, I get Christmas cards from grateful parents.
One young man who wasnt star material was working on a project with four outstanding sailors. I debated whether he deserved one of my letters; because he was part of a stellar group, I went ahead. His parents were divorced, so I sent a letter to each parent. About two weeks later, the sailor knocked on my door with tears streaming down his face.
Whats wrong? I asked.
I just got a call from my father, who all my life told me Im a failure. This time, he said hed just read your letter, and he wanted to congratulate me and say how proud he was of me. Its the first time in my entire life hes actually encouraged me. Captain, I cant thank you enough.
My own tear ducts held, but I was very moved.
One of my true star sailors was a second-class petty officer, Darren Barton, of Little Rock, Arkansas. Darren was one of the sailors who did an outstanding job with the Tomahawk cruise missiles. I wrote his mother, Carol, about how well her son had performed, and she was so proud that one day, when President Clinton was visiting Little Rock, she staked out his motorcade and asked him to countersign my letter. She sent me a copy of that letter signed by the president of the United States, and I was extremely happy to share in her pride of her son.
My officers knew that they could always use me in their leadership toolkits. They never hesitated to knock on my door and say, Hey, Captain, next time youre out walking around the ship, Sonarman Smith really aced that databank, or Seaman Jones is doing a helluva job in the laundry. Could you stop by and tell him how much you appreciate him?
Those conversations were the highlight of my day, and they didnt cost me or the Navy a dime. The more I went around meeting sailors, the more they talked to me openly and intelligently. The more I thanked them for hard work, the harder they worked. The payoff in morale was palpable. Im absolutely convinced that positive, personal reinforcement is the essence of effective leadership. Yet some leaders seem to be moving away from it. They stay connected electronically with e-mail and cell phones, but theyre disconnected personally, and many leaders almost never leave their offices. People seem to think that if you send somebody a compliment online, its as good as the human touch. It is not. Its easier, but much less effective. Social interaction is getting lost in a digital world that trades more in abstractions than in face-to-face relations. Its more than a shameits a bottom-line mistake.
As I have said before, my sister Connie works for a major bank. One of her people did a phenomenal job, making hundreds of thousands of dollars for the bank, and Connies boss sent an e-mail congratulating and thanking her. That very afternoon, he rode the elevator with her and didnt even acknowledge her existence. It completely wiped out any good his e-mail could have done.
Recall how you feel when your own boss tells you, Good job. Do your people (and yourself ) a favor. Say it in person, if you can. Press the flesh. Open yourself. Coldness congeals. Warmth heals. Little things make big successes.
The Navy has a program that assigns an ombudsman for every ship as a contact point for sailors families. The idea is to make it as easy as possible to keep families informed of new orders, events aboard ship, the ships movements, in general, and, of course, to have a communications link between sailors and their families. In practice, the ombudsman is usually the spouse of someone on the ship and is the hub for all the other families wanting to keep in touch with their relatives on board. We set out to make Benfolds ombudsman program the best in the Navy, and in fact our ombudsman was phenomenal.
Sylvia Schanche had a special phone line for families to call and leave messages for her, which she responded to by calling the ship or sending an e-mail. She kept everyone informed about the ships changing schedule; if there was an accident on board, we told her immediately what was happening and she passed the word to the families of anyone involved. If there was a death in a sailors family, the ombudsman would make the arrangements to fly him or her back to the States. If a relative was hospitalized, she passed information back and forth. She even helped families who were having trouble coping with the stress of separation. She was a great resource and another way of keeping the crew strong and united. The less they have to worry about home, the more time and attention they have for the ship.
Most businesses should have a similar program, but hardly any do. For instance, I know of a manager who had a heart attack while on the road, but the company had no procedure in place to fly his family out to be with him in the hospital, and in general to ease a time of trauma. Personnel departments arent usually organized to do that.
In fact, many of the techniques that I developed in the Navy could be easily adapted for personal reinforcement in the civilian workplace. For example, the Navy hands out medals for superior performance, but not when a sailor leaves the service. Leaving is perceived as breaking ranks and mildly inconsiderate of those left behind. I disagreed with that policy, believing that medals send two important signals even when they are given to departing people. They tell those leaving that their services have been valued; equally important, they show those remaining that their hard work will be recognized in the same way when they leave.
The commanding officer of a ship is authorized to hand out 15 medals a year. I wanted to err on the side of excess, so in my first year I passed out 115. Nearly every time a sailor left, I gave him or her a medal. Even if they hadnt been star players, they got medals in a public ceremony as long as they had done their best every day. I delivered a short speech describing how much we cherished the recipients friendship, camaraderie, and hard work. It wasnt unusual for people to cry at those ceremonies. Sometimes the departing sailors shipmates told funny stories, recalling his or her foibles, trials, and triumphs.
The award I handed out was called the Navy Achievement Medal. I often think that every company should have an equivalentthe General Electric Quality Star, say, or the IBM Order of Excellence, or the Microsoft Medal of Distinction. There is absolutely no downside to this symbolic gesture, provided it is done sincerely and without hype.
From the book ITS YOUR SHIP: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff. Copyright 2002 by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff. Reprinted by permission of Warner Books, Inc, New York, NY. All rights reserved.