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Lessons From Ship To Shore

Lessons From Ship To Shore

Gary Robbins of The San Diego Union-Tribune recently interviewed former Navy Commander Michael Abrashoff about the re-release of his bestselling book It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy:

The San Diego-based destroyer Benfold wasn’t performing as well is it should have been when Michael Abrashoff became the ship’s commander in the late 1990s. Morale and productivity were particular problem areas.

Abrashoff improved both, partly by examining and changing his own management style. In the process, the Benfold gained a great deal of respect. So did Abrashoff, who went on to write, It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy.

The 10th anniversary edition of the book was released recently. We contacted Abrashoff to ask what he’s learned over the past decade.

Q: Since “It’s Your Ship” was first published, the United States has been through one of the worst recessions in history. Did you pick up fresh insights about good management by watching how companies and individuals responded?

A: The best leaders are those who communicate the most effectively and the most often about what needs to be done to stay safe in tough times. … I know how tough it is out there, but it’s all about controlling your own destiny and making sure you are upgrading your skills to compete in that global environment.

I have a sister who is in sales in a large organization and is 62 years old. Five years ago, she saw the handwriting on the wall. Her company was downsizing and was letting go some of the older workers. She decided to volunteer to become the tech expert for her sales division as nobody was doing it and she saw the need. On her own time, she became better versed in the technology and became the go-to person for the sales force.

Not only is she still employed, but she got the mentor of the year award for her company last year. She knows she will have to continually upgrade her skills if she is going to continue to control her own destiny and retire when she wants to and on her own terms.

Q: You spoke about many management qualities in the first edition of your book. Which of those qualities was the most important to company executives in surviving the downturn?

A: There are many things that have to happen to survive the downturn. You need to be financially sound and have the wherewithal to survive tough times.

I was talking to a business owner in November 2009 and asked him how his business was doing. He said he was up 30 percent that year because while everybody else was cutting back, he had the financial wherewithal to expand and take market share from others. He was able to take that market share because of an intense leadership training program he had with his team. They lifted burdens off his shoulders so that he had the time in the day to go out and spend it with their best customers.

He called it “getting out of doing $20-an-hour work so that he had the time in the day to do $1,000-an-hour work.” He had the financial wherewithal to do it but also realized that he couldn’t drive growth by himself, so he invested in his people. Today, they are adding workers and are even more profitable and successful.

Q: The number of Navy commanders and executive officers fired in 2012 was among the highest in the past decade. Many of the firings involved poor management skills. Is there something wrong with the way the Navy screens and appoints command staff?

A: The Navy has an extraordinarily fair selection process. I think it’s more transparent and more fair than many selection processes that I have seen in the private sector. So maybe it’s not the process but how we are training them.

Being the commanding officer of a ship is one of the most demanding jobs in the military, and you never know what you are going to be called upon to do when the day starts, and so you have to have a great breadth of experience from which to draw in order to make the best decisions.

When I was first starting out in 1982, we had more ships that operated together. You had to maneuver around other ships. You had more operational exercises. The opportunities were abundant for junior officers to learn ship-handling skills and other skills that lead to better operational judgment and greater professional wisdom.

These days, most ships are out there operating independently and never interacting in exercises at close range. Junior officers just aren’t getting the same ship handling experience and so when they see a new situation developing, they don’t have the experience to make sound decisions. That’s why we are seeing more groundings and collisions that just shouldn’t be happening.

Q: The Navy is working on a tougher screening process for commanders. What management skill do you value above all others when it comes to looking for the right people to command warships?

A: As much as I admire the Navy’s screening process, there is room for improvement. In my own work, we use thinking style assessments. We test those who have been successful in a certain assignment and try to understand their thinking styles and what motivates them and what their behaviors are. We also test those who have not been successful. You would be amazed at the similarities. We don’t tell companies who to hire based on these assessments, but we help them to reduce risk.

I think the Navy needs to add these assessments as just one more piece of data for the selection boards to consider when selecting new commanding officers.

By Gary Robbins
From: The San Diego Union-Tribune