Thought about designing the ideal workplace…for your mom? “Any organization can go from being the worst to the best by creating an environment where people would want their own loved ones to work,” says Mike Abrashoff, The New York Times bestselling author of It’s Your Ship. When Abrashoff delivered an inspiring keynote at the 2011 Executive Recognition Summit, he focused on the amazing results that occur when you openly communicate and instill a true sense of ownership in the people you lead.
Abrashoff was first given command of the USS Benfold in 1997. At the time, it was regarded as one of the worst ships in the Pacific fleet, a ship where its own crew did not feel safe. Abrashoff knew he had many problems to address. But he also knew he had to focus on the one variable that he could influence: his crew.
“It all came down to employee engagement. It all came down to recognition. It all came down to leadership, which led to every sailor feeling ownership and accountability for the results. You can ask a team to accomplish a mission but you can’t order excellence. Excellence only comes about when, us, as captains, as leaders, create and lead those engaged associates so that they take just as much ownership for the organization as you have for it.”
Instead of assuming the typical command and control leadership style, Abrashoff tried something different. He met with each crew member one-on-one, encouraging and empowering them to share their ideas on what should change and how to make things better. As he told each one, “This is your ship.”
“That’s how Benfold became a hotbed of creativity and innovation. It didn’t come because the Captain ordered it from his Captain’s chair. It came because the crew knew that it was in their own best interest that we’d be ruthlessly efficient and get everything done to the best of our ability, with the scarcest of resources. It all came down to us deciding that we’re going to challenge the way we do business and realize that we need to make the leap from just being managers to being leaders.”
Outlining the steps he took, Abrashoff called out key points leaders should keep in mind to get powerful results from their people:
- Make sure people know you want them to stay, “On a daily basis, letting people know that we honor and value them and that working together, we’re going to keep them safe.”
- Invest in education and training, which will give your people confidence to step up.
- Create sustainable change. Ask your executive team and your officers, “Are we creating something that can be around for the long term?”
- Don’t ask for change if you’re unwilling to change yourself.
- See the organization from the employee’s view point, this will help you reach out and communicate more effectively.
- Get to know your people, listen to their ideas, and call out great work being done.
- Recognize with the tools you have and be sincere about it, “It shows you genuinely care about what they’re doing and what makes you proud of them.”
- Find ways to have fun.
“We tried to create a culture where we weren’t going to be satisfied unless we were number one. Everything we did, we were playing to win. What we tried to create was a sense of teamwork, a sense of camaraderie, a sense of esprit de corp. This all led to unity of purpose, where we stopped focusing on our divisions, and started focusing on the things that united us.”
Using recognition and acknowledging crew members for the value they contributed drew the best out of them. And uniting his crew with this purpose of doing their best led to amazing results. Benfold’s retention rate went from 8 percent to almost 100 percent. In his last year, Abrashoff ran the ship on 75 percent of its operating budget. In just 18 months, the ship went from being one of the worst in the Pacific fleet to being named the ship considered to be the most proficient in overall combat systems readiness. And, four years after Abrashoff left, Benfold and its crew won the award for the best ship in the entire U.S. Navy.
“If I learned one thing after almost 20 years in the military, it’s that if you treat your people poorly, you’re never going to be disappointed. They’re going to perform poorly. If you treat them like they’re the best, if you set high expectations and train them, give them the confidence and recognize them, they’ll perform like they’re the best. My former chief engineer called me one day to say, ‘You know Captain, we tried to recruit our people each and every day even though we already had them on board. If you think about how much time, money and effort you spend recruiting the best talent, it is far more economical to retain the best talent you already have.’”
“We’re leading in extraordinarily difficult times,” concluded Abrahsoff. “A lot is being asked of us. Those of us who are left in organizations are working longer and harder than we ever have. What we need to do is to understand the sacrifices that people are making. They’re looking for leadership, they’re looking for recognition. They want to do their best. We need to impress all of this upon our managers and leaders and create a sense of urgency around it.”
What do you think? How do you empower your people and turn them from team members into team owners?