“Bet on the people who think for themselves. “
― D. Michael Abrashoff, It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy

Captain of a Sinking Ship:

Sinking Ship in BusinessWhat’s your nightmare business situation? How about being put in charge of a company with terrible productivity, a grumbling team, and the worst performance records in your industry. What would you do?

That happened to Michael Abrashoff. At 36, he became the youngest commander in the U.S. Pacific fleet. The bad news was that his ship, the USS Benfold, was as abysmal as the hypothetical company mentioned above. But in 12 months, he turned it into the #1 ship in the navy. So, what did he do?

How Abrashoff turned his ship around has lessons for all leaders, whether in the navy or business. His philosophy: Everyone wants to excel at his or her job. The leader’s job is to give them the opportunity to do so.

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“What would you do? It’s your ship!”:

Abrashoff began his 2 year command with the assumption that every one of the crew wanted to succeed. If they didn’t it was on him.

He sat with the 310 strong crew and asked 3 questions:

“What do you like most about the USS Benfold?”
“What do you like least?”
“What’s one thing you would change?”

These three questions are immensely powerful. They have the power to draw out hidden inefficiencies that only the team members can see. If you ask them, and (far more importantly) take ownership of the answers, you’ll start your team working towards a unified purpose.

Abrashoff believed that, as Captain, he served the crew. During lunches on the deck, he and the officers went to the back of the line. They ate with the crew. They shared stories and jokes, and the crew began to know them as people and not ranks.

When your staff members come to you with a problem, what do you say? Do you dismiss their concerns and anxieties or, wanting to be a good boss, solve problems for them? Abrashoff challenged them with, “What would you do? It’s your ship!” By not allowing himself to become a crutch, he empowered them to think for themselves. In doing that, he gained the gift of their perspective.

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Don’t Keep Painting the Ship:

Rusty ShipWe know what salt water does to metal. Every couple of months, the Benfold has to be repainted to cover the rust. It took a month. Imagine if you had to close your business every 2 months, for a month, and to spend money in that time on maintenance that you had to do again and again. How profitable would you be?

Does leadership matter? Consider this. A sailor, who had painted the Benfold countless times, felt able to approach Abrashoff with a question. It was the bolts that rusted, so what about replacing them with stainless steel bolts? The mark of a good leader is the fact that his staff feel able to speak up about what bugs them.

By replacing the bolts, time between re-paintings went from 2 months to 10. The navy quickly adopted the practice, saving millions.

If that sailor hadn’t heard, “it’s your ship,” over and over, he wouldn’t have asked. If an employee doesn’t feel valued, he or she will not say what’s bugging him or her. If team members don’t speak up, your business will not improve. It’s up to you, as leader, to ask those 3 crucial, empowering questions and own the answers.

original photos from: https://investingcaffeine.com/2009/11/06/too-big-to-sink/