Recently, I heard a talk by D. Michael Abrashoff, the retired captain of the USS Benfold. His story was featured in the business magazine Fast Company. His achievement? He helped turn his ship from worst to first in the Navy.
The USS Benfold, once home to the most demoralized crew in the Pacific fleet, became a ship with an award-winning team of achievers in just two years. In doing that, Abrashoff also helped turn around a Navy management system that had been in place for 223 years.
He called forth motivation and pride from young enlisted men and women (the so-called "Gen Y" group, ages 18 to 24) who grew into highly productive workers, saving the taxpayers a lot of money. Many service businesses have employees from this generational group. One of the questions I am most frequently asked by those 40 to 55 years old when I lead supervision seminars is, "Why can’t these people work?"
Abrashoff said he stumbled on four main principles to motivate workers in this age group to become top performers. Yet, surprisingly, they are no different than what frontline workers of any generation want, and rarely receive from their managers.
- Understand worker motivation. Abrashoff surveyed why people volunteered for the Navy. There was one reason above all: the G.I. Bill. Enlistees saw that tuition benefit as the main ticket to a better life, and serving in the Navy was the means to that end.
So Abrashoff understood he had to help the crew members develop more reasons for serving on the ship—especially if they were to be a top-drawer fighting ship should the need ever arise. So he asked the crew what they wanted in leadership that they hadn’t been receiving, and what might raise morale.
The answers were clear: Value each of us for what we can contribute. Listen to what we say. Help us deal with relationship problems, on and off the ship. Keep us informed about what’s going on. Let us participate in the decision-making.
- Respect worker intelligence. People who are close to the work process actually know much more than leaders believe—and care about work, if only they were asked. A crewmember noted the ship had to undergo a costly repainting every two months. The crewmember pointed out the bolts were made from iron, which corroded easily in the marine environment. How about using stainless steel bolts?
Abrashoff listened. When Abrashoff placed an order in the Navy system, no stainless steel bolts were available. So in the next American port, he went to a large hardware center and placed an order for 25,000 bolts. They were installed, and the ship did not have to be painted for 10 months—a huge savings that Abrashoff invested in a computer learning center for the crew. He said they deserved it, since they had saved the money. In a sense, it was their savings to spend, not his. The learning center enabled them to start on college and trades telecourses while at sea.
- Change the company paradigm. The savings belonged to the crew because, fundamentally, the ship belonged to them, not to Abrashoff, or even the Navy. The crew actually ran the ship. It could not run without them. Abrashoff said that he ditched the command-control, top-down leadership model immediately.
Abrashoff made sure he knew each of his crewmembers, their interests, aspirations, and talents.
He was fully accessible to any crewmember at any time, without a complex chain of command. He functioned in a coordinator role, enabling the crew to do their best, and also to be accountable for their work. They got the glory, not him. Interestingly, no single individual got the glory—the entire crew, Abrashoff included, became top performers.
- Have some fun. Life at sea can become monotonous and duties can be boring. Abrashoff added special events (suggested by the crew) like karaoke nights and Friday night sunset jazz to enhance morale. Crewmember commitment grew as they enjoyed being together.
Each of us has a "ship" to manage. Whose ship is it? It’s not yours or mine. The ship belongs to those who work to make it run.
Abrashoff’s four principles apply to every workplace, to every generation, and especially to those moving into frontline positions now.
It all boils down to one principle: Respect those who work and value their contribution. From there, it’s smooth sailing. IBI