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It's Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy
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It's Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy

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by D. Michael Abrashoff

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The story of Captain D. Michael Abrashoff and his command of USS Benfold has become legendary inside and outside the Navy. Now Abrashoff offers this fascinating tale of top-down change for anyone trying to navigate today's uncertain business seas. When Captain Abrashoff took over as commander of USS Benfold, a ship armed with every cutting-edge system available, it


The story of Captain D. Michael Abrashoff and his command of USS Benfold has become legendary inside and outside the Navy. Now Abrashoff offers this fascinating tale of top-down change for anyone trying to navigate today's uncertain business seas. When Captain Abrashoff took over as commander of USS Benfold, a ship armed with every cutting-edge system available, it was like a business that had all the latest technology but only some of the productivity. Knowing that responsibility for improving performance rested with him, he realized he had to improve his own leadership skills before he could improve his ship. Within months he created a crew of confident and inspired problem-solvers eager to take the initiative and take responsibility for their actions. The slogan on board became "It's your ship," and Benfold was soon recognized far and wide as a model of naval efficiency. How did Abrashoff do it? Against the backdrop of today's United States Navy-Benfold was a key player in our Persian Gulf fleet-Abrashoff shares his secrets of successful management including:

  • See the ship through the eyes of the crew: By soliciting a sailor's suggestions, Abrashoff drastically reduced tedious chores that provided little additional value.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate: The more Abrashoff communicated the plan, the better the crew's performance. His crew would eventually call him "Megaphone Mike," since they heard from him so often.
  • Create discipline by focusing on purpose: Discipline skyrocketed when Abrashoff's crew believed that what they were doing was important.
  • Listen aggressively: After learning that many sailors wanted to use the GI Bill, Abrashoff brought a test official aboard the ship-and held the SATs forty miles off the Iraqi coast. From achieving amazing cost savings to winning the highest gunnery score in the Pacific Fleet, Captain Abrashoff's extraordinary campaign sent shock waves through the U.S. Navy. It can help you change the course of your ship, no matter where your business battles are fought.

Editorial Reviews

Soundview Executive Book Summaries
Before leaving the U.S. Navy to become the CEO of Grassroots Leadership Inc., Captain Abrashoff commanded the USS Benfold, a ship armed with the latest technology available. To create a crew of confident and inspired problem-solvers, he used the slogan "It's your ship" to motivate them to take responsibility for their actions and improve their performance. In It's Your Ship, Abrashoff describes how he used proactive communication and sailor input to make the USS Benfold a model of naval efficiency and a key player in the U.S. Persian Gulf fleet. Copyright © 2004 Soundview Executive Book Summaries

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Grand Central Publishing
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6.32(w) x 9.28(h) x 0.87(d)

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It's Your Ship

Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy
By D. Michael Abrashoff

Warner Business

Copyright © 2005 D. Michael Abrashoff All right reserved.
ISBN: 0446690570

Chapter One

Take Command

MY FIRST INKLING OF THE SIZE OF THE JOB CAME AT 1:21 in the afternoon of June 20, 1997, after I formally assumed command of USS Benfold.

When a Navy ship changes hands, all routine work stops two weeks prior to the event. The crew paints the ship from top to bottom, sets up a big tent on the flight deck, arranges chairs for dignitaries, and unrolls a red carpet for the obligatory admiral, who delivers a speech on the outstanding performance of the ship's departing skipper. A reception follows. Waves of good feeling saturate the event as the former commanding officer is piped ashore.

My predecessor was accompanied by his family as he left the ship. And when the public-address system announced his final departure, much of the crew was not disappointed to see him go. I can still feel my face flushing with embarrassment when I remember how some didn't give him a respectful send-off.

Truthfully, my first thought as I watched this spectacle was about myself. How could I ensure that my eventual departure wouldn't be met with relief when I left the ship in two years? I was taking over a very tough crew who didn't exactly adore their captain.

The crew would probably dislike me, I thought, if for no other reason than that I represented old-fashioned and perhaps obsolete authority. That was okay; being likable is not high among a ship captain's job requirements. What is essential is to be respected, trusted, and effective. Listening to those raucous jeers, I realized that I had a long way to go before I really took command of Benfold.

I knew that I would have to come up with a new leadership model, geared to a new era. And this awkward reception underlined for me just how much the workplace had changed in military as well as in civilian life.

Never before had employees felt so free to tell their bosses what they thought of them. In the long economic boom, people were not afraid of losing their jobs. Other jobs awaited them; even modestly qualified people moved from one company to another in a quest for the perfect position they believed they richly deserved.

However the economy is doing, a challenge for leaders in the twenty-first century is attracting and retaining not just employees, but the best employees-and more important, how to motivate them so that they work with passion, energy, and enthusiasm. But very few people with brains, skills, and initiative appear. The timeless challenge in the real world is to help less-talented people transcend their limitations.

Pondering all this in the context of my post as the new captain of Benfold, I read some exit surveys, interviews conducted by the military to find out why people are leaving. I assumed that low pay would be the first reason, but in fact it was fifth. The top reason was not being treated with respect or dignity; second was being prevented from making an impact on the organization; third, not being listened to; and fourth, not being rewarded with more responsibility. Talk about an eye-opener.

Further research disclosed an unexpected parallel with civilian life. According to a recent survey, low pay is also number five on the list of reasons why private employees jump from one company to another. And the top four reasons are virtually the same as in the military. The inescapable conclusion is that, as leaders, we are all doing the same wrong things.

Since a ship's captain can't hand out pay raises, much less stock options, I decided that during my two years commanding Benfold, I would concentrate on dealing with the unhappy sailors' top four gripes. My organizing principle was simple: The key to being a successful skipper is to see the ship through the eyes of the crew. Only then can you find out what's really wrong and, in so doing, help the sailors empower themselves to fix it.

A simple principle, yes, but one the Navy applauds in theory and rejects in practice. Officers are told to delegate authority and empower subordinates, but in reality they are expected never to utter the words "I don't know." So they are on constant alert, riding herd on every detail. In short, the system rewards micromanagement by superiors-at the cost of disempowering those below. This is understandable, given the military's ancient insistence on obedience in the face of chaos, which is essential in battle. Moreover, subordinates may sidestep responsibility by reasoning that their managers are paid to take the rap.

A ship commanded by a micromanager and his or her hierarchy of sub-micromanagers is no breeding ground for individual initiative. And I was aiming for 310 initiative-takers-a crew ready, able, and willing to make Benfold the top-rated ship in the fleet.

What I wanted, in fact, was a crew that bore at least a dim resemblance to the ship's namesake, Edward C. Benfold, a Navy hospital corpsman who died in action at the age of twenty-one while tending to two wounded Marines in a foxhole during the Korean War. When several enemy soldiers approached the foxhole, throwing grenades into it, Benfold picked up the grenades and stormed the enemy, killing them and himself in the process. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. (Incidentally, he came from the small town of Audubon, New Jersey, which has two other Medal of Honor winners as well, making it the highest per capita Medal of Honor city in the United States.) I wanted my crew to display courage and step up to the plate just as Edward Benfold had done.

We had nowhere to go but up. Still, up is not an easy direction. It defies gravity, both cultural and magnetic. So the Benfold story is hardly a hymn to our unalloyed success in converting the heathen. It was tough going.

At first, my unconventional approach to the job evoked fear and undermined the authoritarian personality that had been imprinted on the ship. But instead of constantly scrutinizing the members of my crew with the presumption that they would screw up, I assumed that they wanted to do well and be the best. I wanted everyone to be involved in the common cause of creating the best ship in the Pacific Fleet. And why stop there? Let's shoot for the best damn ship in the whole damn Navy!

I began with the idea that there is always a better way to do things, and that, contrary to tradition, the crew's insights might be more profound than even the captain's. Accordingly, we spent several months analyzing every process on the ship. I asked everyone, "Is there a better way to do what you do?" Time after time, the answer was yes, and many of the answers were revelations to me.

My second assumption was that the secret to lasting change is to implement processes that people will enjoy carrying out. To that end, I focused my leadership efforts on encouraging people not only to find better ways to do their jobs, but also to have fun as they did them. And sometimes-actually, a lot of times-I encouraged them to have fun for fun's sake.

Little gestures go a long way. At our base in San Diego, for example, I decided to quit feeding the crew with official Navy rations, and instead used the ship's food budget to buy quality civilian brands that were cheaper as well as tastier. I sent some of our cooks to culinary school. What they learned turned Benfold into a lunchtime mecca for sailors from all over the San Diego base.

There were also our music videos, courtesy of stealth technology. We have all heard of the stealth bomber. We are now building ships using stealth characteristics to minimize our radar signature so that the enemy cannot easily find us. By using angled decks and radar-absorbing materials on the hull, an enemy's radar beam is either deflected or absorbed. As a result, an 8,600-ton, 505-foot-long destroyer looks no bigger on an enemy's radar screen than a fishing boat. The angled superstructure that stealth technology dictated on the after part of Benfold resembles the screen of an old drive-in movie theater. So one of my more resourceful sailors created outdoor entertainment by projecting music videos on that surface, which the refueling crews could enjoy. The shows generated a lot of buzz throughout the fleet and lightened up a tedious and sometimes dangerous job.

While spending thirty-five interminable autumn days in the scorching Persian Gulf, we acquired a lifeboat full of pumpkins, a fruit alien to the Middle East. Our supply officer pulled off this coup, and I thought it would be micromanaging to ask for an explanation. After we overdosed on pumpkin pie, we distributed scores of unused pumpkins for a jack-o'-lantern carving contest.

The innovations weren't all lighthearted. On our way from San Diego to the Persian Gulf, for example, our first stop was Honolulu. Benfold accompanied two other ships, USS Gary and USS Harry W. Hill, both skippered by officers senior to me. The operational commander of all three ships was a commodore aboard Hill.

During the seven-day voyage, we performed exercises and drills. On the sixth day, we were supposed to detect and avoid a U.S. submarine that was posing as an enemy. The submarine's task was to find and sink the ship carrying the commodore. Though the commanding officer of Gary was in charge of this particular exercise, because of his seniority, three days prior to the exercise no plan had yet been announced, and I sensed an opportunity. In business lingo, you could say Benfold's crew had a chance to boost the ship's market share.

I called my junior sonarmen into my stateroom, along with the appropriate officers to serve as witnesses, and assigned them the task of coming up with an innovative plan. I told them to put themselves in the shoes of the submarine's commanding officer (CO), to figure out what he was going to do, and then to develop a strategy to scupper it.

To everyone's surprise-including mine-they devised the most imaginative plan I had ever seen. We submitted it, but both the commodore and Gary's CO shot it down in favor of a last-minute plan based on the same tactics the Navy has been using since World War II. Now more than ever, we must stop preparing for past battles and prepare for new ones.

When I heard their decision, I went ballistic. Forcefully, almost disrespectfully, I argued with them on the ship-to-ship radio. The radio is a secure circuit, but also a party line that any sailor can listen to by punching the right button, which all of my sailors did. They heard me challenge my bosses to try something new and bold. I was told in no uncertain terms that we would use Gary's plan. I asked for an NFL instant replay, appealing the decision. Nope. Tradition, plus outmoded business practices, carried the day.

As a result, the submarine sank all three of us-without its crew breaking a sweat. Talk about dejection. But my sailors knew that I had gone to bat for them. I could not do less: They had done the same for me by designing such innovative solutions.

The next day, we were scheduled to pull into Pearl Harbor. Navy ships arrive ashore and depart for sea in order of the date of rank of their commanding officers, another archaic monument to tradition. I was the junior commanding officer on our three ships, so Benfold was scheduled to arrive last, at 1700 hours in the late afternoon, and depart first at 0700 the next morning, on our way to Singapore.

Since the submarine exercise (read fiasco) was over early in the morning, I saw no reason to drift at sea waiting for the other ships to precede me into Pearl when my sailors could enjoy a whole day's liberty ashore if we left early. With my crew again listening on the party line, I radioed the other captains and asked if they might want to ask permission to go in early. Nothing doing, they said. Stick to plan. Don't stir up trouble, which is exactly what I did when I called the commodore, over their objections, and asked to go in early. His tone wasn't friendly; he, too, had been listening to my conversations with the other COs.

"Give me a good reason," he said. "We will save taxpayers' money by not sitting out here wasting fuel. Also, I have a broken piece of equipment I want to have fixed, and finally, I would like my crew to enjoy a day on the beach. By my count, that's three good reasons."

The commodore cleared his throat. Then, to everyone's surprise, he said, "Permission granted." You could hear my sailors cheering throughout the ship. We revved up all four engines and rooster-tailed to the mouth of the harbor at max speed, hardly saving any fuel! We got our equipment fixed, and by midday my sailors were headed for Waikiki and mai tais. That's when they began saying, "This is not your father's Navy."

And that's when I knew that I had taken command-not just in name, but in truth. One sailor told me that the crew thought I cared more about performance and them than about my next promotion. That's another thing you need to learn about your people: They are more perceptive than you give them credit for, and they always know the score-even when you don't want them to.

A lot of the sailors I worked with came from the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. They grew up in dysfunctional families in blighted neighborhoods, where addiction and abuse were common. They went to lousy schools and had little, if any, of what I took for granted as a kid: stability, support, succor. Still, despite all this adversity and the fact that they had nothing handed to them in life, they were some of the best citizens I have ever met. Unlike them, I didn't have to look very far to find my heroes; I had some in my own family. And the older I get, the more I appreciate, even revere, them.

My paternal grandparents came to the United States from Macedonia in 1906 and settled in Mount Union, Pennsylvania. My father, one of eleven children, served in World War II, as did three of his brothers. In the opening hours of the Battle of the Bulge, my uncle Butch took seven bullets to his helmet, was knocked out, presumed dead, and lay on the ground for three days while the battle raged. When soldiers came through to pick up the bodies, they realized he was still breathing. He recovered, and died just last year at the age of eighty-eight.

My uncle Kero, a paratrooper, jumped behind enemy lines in occupied France on a successful mission to gather intelligence.

My father was in the Army, assigned to the Merchant Marine as a radio operator. At the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he was told to choose between two ships. The first was spanking new and the second was an old rust bucket. Maybe because his sympathies were always with the underdog, my father chose the latter.


Excerpted from It's Your Ship by D. Michael Abrashoff Copyright © 2005 by D. Michael Abrashoff. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

At the age of 36, the Navy selected Mike to become Commander of USS Benfold - at the time, the most junior commanding officer in the Pacific Fleet. The immediate challenges that faced him were staggering: Exceptionally low morale with unacceptably high turnover and poor performance results. Few thought that this ship could improve.
The solution was to establish a system of management techniques that Mike calls Grassroots Leadership. At the core of his leadership approach on Benfold was a process of replacing command and control with commitment and cohesion, and by engaging the hearts, minds, and loyalties of workers - with conviction and humility. "The most important thing that a captain can do is to see the ship through the eyes of the crew." According to Mike, Grassroots Leadership and his Leadership Roadmap is a practice that empowers every individual to share the responsibility of achieving excellence. "It's your ship," he was known to say. His former sailors to this day still remind him of it.
By every measure, these principles were able to achieve breakthrough results. Personnel turnover decreased to an unprecedented 1 percent. The rate of military promotions tripled, and the crew slashed operating expenses by 25 percent. Regarded as the finest ship in the Pacific Fleet, Benfold won the prestigious Spokane Trophy for having the highest degree of combat readiness.
Mike recounted the leadership lessons from his turnaround of USS Benfold in It's Your Ship. First published in 2002, it quickly became a classic in the field of management books. It's a New York Times and Wall Street Journal Best Seller.
Prior to commanding USS Benfold, Mike served as the Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, the Honorable Dr. William J. Perry. He also helped draft the air defense plan for naval forces in the Persian Gulf in 1990, coinciding with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait; and served as the Executive Officer of the Cruiser Shiloh, where he deployed to the Persian Gulf in support of United Nations sanctions against Iraq.
Mike, a 1982 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, is now an experienced entrepreneur and thought leader having founded GLS World, a leadership development company dedicated to helping organizations an individuals deliver the best results in a challenging global environment. You can visit his website at www.glsworld.com.

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It's Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 71 reviews.
Learning_to_park_my_ego More than 1 year ago
I like business books, but many of the professionals I work with aren't big readers. The text-of-the-day often comes across as too academic for their real world problems. The author of It's Your Ship doesn't suffer from that problem. In fact, after sharing this book with one of my I-don't-enjoy-business-books colleagues, he actually read it and told me to buy another copy for myself as he was keeping that one! "Bad News Doesn't Get Better With Age" is one of the practical quotes from the book I have heard that leader use regularly to teach others not to "shoot the messenger." The style of writing makes for very readable anecdotes. At first, the command-and-control environment of the Navy didn't seem to hold that much in common with our corporate culture. However, after reading the book, the paradigm shift was complete: a) I realized our culture was way more top-down command-and-control than I realized; & b) Captain Abrashoff's success was, due to his learning, "I found that the more control I gave up, the more command I got."
ShawnaR More than 1 year ago
There are so many management books out there that read just like a boring textbook. Refreshingly, Abrashoff has a way of telling stories that keep you hooked, and along the way, dispensing some of the management tidbits that we all know are good but seem to forget in our daily lives. He takes the management technique, explains it, and then relates it to a story from his military career. Most of his stories have you waiting to find out how they end. My favorite story is the one about buying beer for his crew and trying to find a way to serve it that wasn't on the ship. I have found myself recommending this book more than I recommend any other management book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Until you have read this book, learned from it, and then truly utilize this method of management you will lack the support of those you serve and those who desire to serve you. Traditional posturing of managers fails each and every day to motivate, and usually retards progress through intimidation or a "can't do attitude". "Allowing" those who do the job and know it best, can bring progress to every company. Management unfortunately stands in the way of the progress 85% of the time. If every manager worked this way they would get, Better Damn Results. Chris V.
GailCooke More than 1 year ago
A new captain taking command of a ship is a ceremonial occasion. There's a reception, speeches, attendance by dignitaries, and the former commander is piped ashore. When Captain D. Michael Abrashoff took command of the USS Benfold on June 20, 1977 it was patently obvious that the crew was not at all sad to see their former captain leave. Abrashoff began to wonder if when he departed in two years the situation would be the same. He well realized that he was totally responsible for the way the crew performed. But, how to do it without a company of unhappy men? As he points out being liked wasn't necessary but he did want to win his men's respect and trust. Thus, all would be more effective. The knotty question was how to do this. In search of answers Abrashoff turned to some exit surveys, assuming that the main reason for leaving would be low pay. That was not the case at all. People left because they did not feel respected and they did not feel they had an impact on the organization. A low salary came in fifth as a cause for moving on. Abrashoff felt that he could apply these principles to his crew, and he did with stellar results. Firstly, he stresses the importance of seeing the ship through the eyes of the crew. He solicited suggestions and many times found them to be extremely helpful. Communication was also high on his list as well as instilling in the men a sense of importance in what they were doing. The payoff for captain and crew came not only in huge cost savings but also achieving the highest gunnery score in the Pacific fleet. Abrashoff posits that what brought extraordinary change and success aboard his ship can do the same for a business. You'll be a believer after hearing his suggestions read in his own voice, one that speaks clearly, without hesitation, and with authority grounded in proven experience. - Gail Cooke
Guest More than 1 year ago
History teachers, basketball, & volleyball coaches will receive numberous ideas for leading their students. The premise of this book applies into many areas.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Book is easy to follow, written in simple language. Recommend for anyone in leadership position , either new or season. Thinking about recommending to my students.
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Hugely entertaining. Just enough humor to keep you involved and inspired.
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Follow these aand you'll have people asking to be on your team.
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This book is a very quick read and has helped me understand the difference between managing and leading people.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although the material in this book is not new, by any means, the examples given and the enthusiasm that you can actually "feel" from the captain and all the members of his crew put a very fresh twist on known management techniques and inspires you to want to go out there and emulate this "It's My Ship" style in your own management environment. I enjoyed it very much!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I run a Fraternity of 40 men. This book greatly helped me come to terms with my leadership ability and gave me some brilliant ideas to keep us on the edge. Also greatly influenced my decision to join the Navy as an officer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago