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The Agenda – Grassroots Leadership – Fast Company – W. Max Eichbaum

by on October 16, 2007


The Agenda – Grassroots Leadership is an article that follows the brief career of D. Michael Abrashoff aboard the USS Benfold. Abrashoff commanded the USS Benfold, one of the Navy’s most successful warships, from 1997 until 1999. The USS Benfold is a $1 billion Arleigh Burke-class destroyer whose crew has proved their merit over and over again by leading some of the most critical missions on Iraq in 1997 and winning many awards, including the coveted Spokane Trophy for combat readiness which hadn’t been awarded to a ship of its class in ten years. Abrashoff is commonly accredited as being the leading cause for the Benfold’s exceptional record. What is more amazing than the Benfold’s record itself is the approach Abrashoff incorporated to attain that level of excellence. His motto, “innovative practices combined with true empowerment produce phenomenal results,” begins to shed light on how his perspective on leading and managing might differ from typical naval fashion. In fact, he wrote a book on the lessons that he took from the Benfold entitled It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy.

Behind Abrashoff’s relaxed confidence is his own brand of organizational zeal. Settling into his stateroom, Abrashoff, 38, props his feet on a coffee table, sips a soda, and says, “I divide the world into believers and infidels. What the infidels don’t understand — and they far outnumber the believers — is that innovative practices combined with true empowerment produce phenomenal results.” (Polly LaBarre, 1999)

That the ranks of the nonbelievers include most of his superiors and fellow commanding officers doesn’t deter Abrashoff one bit. “I’m lucky,” he says. “All I ever wanted to do in the navy was to command a ship. I don’t care if I ever get promoted again. And that attitude has enabled me to do the right things for my people instead of doing the right things for my career. In the process, I ended up with the best ship in the navy — and I got the best evaluation of my career. The unintended benefit? My promotion is guaranteed!” After completing his 20-month tour of duty as commander of the Benfold this past January, Abrashoff reported to a top post at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. (Polly LaBarre, 1999)

But what exactly is it that abrashoff did that was so different from his contemporaries? Well, in the article he outlines six points that he has found to encapsulate the distinction of his management philosophy from that of his colleagues:
1) Don’t just take command — communicate purpose.
The bottom line is that the benfold is a battle ship and the most important factor in its measurement is combat readiness. Abrashoff understands that this is an important principle to reiterate throughout all processes on the ship and use as a chopping block when evaluating processes. If a process is practiced and traditional but does not lead to combat readiness then it is reviewed and may be scrapped. The people on this ship have responded well to the style of management where ever action has a reaction and, more importantly, a greater importance in combat readiness instead of a management style that is less transparent and leadsw the workers to wonder why they are performing the task that they are performing.

2) Leaders listen without prejudice.
Most people in this organization are in “transmit mode” — meaning that they don’t “receive” very well. But it’s amazing what you discover when you listen to them. When I first took charge of the Benfold, I was having trouble learning the names of everyone in the crew, so I decided to interview five people a day. Along with Master Chief Bob Scheeler, the senior enlisted guy on the ship, I met with each person individually and asked three simple questions: What do you like most about the Benfold? What do you like least? What would you change if you could? Most of these sailors had never been in a CO’s cabin before. But once they saw that the invitation was sincere, they gave me suggestions for change that made life easier for the whole crew and also increased our combat-readiness ratings. (Polly LaBarre, 1999)

The term “listening” gets thrown around a lot these days but Abrashoff actually found a way to listen to people that he was managing and used the knowledge gained from those interactions to change processes on the ship. The firs thing he did was divide the input that he had received into mission and non-mission critical tasks. Then, he tacked the most demoralizing tasks first with the intention of alleviating the most strained personnel.

I tackled the most demoralizing things first — like chipping-and-painting. Because ships sit in salt water and rust, chipping-and-painting has always been a standard task for sailors. So every couple of months, my youngest sailors — the ones I most want to connect with — were spending entire days sanding down rust and repainting the ship. It was a huge waste of physical effort. A quick investigation revealed that everything — from the stanchions and metal plates to the nuts and bolts used topside — were made of ferrous material, which rusts. I had every nut and bolt replaced with stainless steel hardware. Then I found a commercial firm in town that uses a new process that involves baking metal, flame-spraying it with a rust inhibitor and with paint, and then powder-coating it with more paint. The entire process cost just $25,000, and that paint job is good for 30 years. The kids haven’t picked up a paintbrush since. And they’ve had a lot more time to learn their jobs. As a result, we’ve seen a huge increase in every readiness indicator that I can think of. (Polly LaBarre, 1999)

Not only was Abrashoff interested in their jobs, he was interested in their lives. He asked about their families and their life goals. He learned that a lot of his men wished to eventually go to college. So, he arranged a SAT testing facility and pulled a few strings to fly in a tester to administer the test. The effects on moral were palpable.

3) Practice discipline without formalism.
In many units — and in many businesses — a lot of time and effort are spent on supporting the guy on top. Anyone on my ship will tell you that I’m a low-maintenance CO. It’s not about me; it’s about my crew. Those initial interviews set the tone: In my chain of command, high performance is the boss. That means that people don’t tell me what I want to hear; they tell me the truth about what’s going on in the ship. It also means that they don’t wait for an official inspection or run every action up and down the chain of command before they do things — they just do them. (Polly LaBarre, 1999)

Abrashoff made sure to get the information that he needed from the people that worked for him. His meetings were not just a PR gig, they actually allowed the workers to voice how their work was getting done and how they thought that it could get done more efficiently. He followed up on those changes and within a few months, he had changed over 40 operating procedures on the ship and every one of them added to combat readiness measuments.

4) The best captains hand out responsibility — not orders.
Companies complain about turnover, but a ship’s company isn’t a static population. Not counting dropouts and other separations, about 35% of a ship’s crew transfers out every year. That means that I must be constantly vigilant about cultivating new experts. After improving the food on this ship, my next priorities were to advance my people and to train my junior officers, who are called on repeatedly to make life-and-death decisions. (Polly LaBarre, 1999)
The real corner stone of Abrashoff’s management style is that he actually empowers his staff. This is incredibly important given his particular area of work. He has to count on the decisions that the people below him will make in a combat situation and the only way to build that confidence is to give them responsibility all the time and allow them to improve their skill set.

As a result, we have the most proficient training teams on the waterfront and a promotion rate that’s over the top. In the last advancement cycle (that’s the process that determines base pay, housing allowance, and sea pay), Benfold sailors got promoted at a rate that was twice as high as the navy average. I advanced 86 sailors in 1998. That amounts to a huge chunk of change and a lot of esteem for roughly one-third of my crew. (Polly LaBarre, 1999)

5) Successful crews perform with devotion.
At a conference for commanding officers that I attended recently, more than half of the officers there argued that paying attention to quality of life (QOL, as we call it) interferes with mission accomplishment. That’s ridiculous. It doesn’t make sense to treat these young folks as expendable. The navy came up 7,000 people short of its 52,000-person recruitment goal in 1998, and it expects to be 12,000 people short of its goal in 1999. In every branch of the military, one-third of all recruits never complete their first term of enlistment. We’ve got to provide reasons for people to join, to stay — and to perform. The leader’s job is to provide an environment in which people are not only able to do well but want to do well. (Polly LaBarre, 1999)

QOL is a big deal to Abrashoff and for that reasons he was willing to bend the rules enough to let his men get out and explore the ports that they were docked at in Dubai. Due to his efforts, the trip has become a typical activity and has begun a move towards improving the lives of sailors on large boring ships during extended activities at sea. To Abrashoff, it is an integral part of running a ship.

Maintaining “quality of life” is simply a matter of paying attention to what causes dissatisfaction among the crew. You do what you can to remove those “dissatisfiers” while increasing the “satisfiers.” Increasing satisfaction may be as simple as recognizing that everybody loves music and then setting up a great sound system or buying a karaoke machine. “Quality of life” is also a matter of creating an environment in which everyone is treated with respect and dignity. The Benfold is one of the first ships in the navy that was built from the keel up to accommodate women. It’s no secret that the military has had problems with sexual harassment and with prejudice in general. Yet when we do equal-opportunity surveys for the Benfold, we get stunning results: Only 3% of minorities on board reported any type of racial prejudice, and only 3% of women reported any form of sexual harassment. (Polly LaBarre, 1999)
6) True change is permanent.
Ships in the navy tend to take on the personality of their commanding officers. But neither my crew nor I worry about what will happen now that I’ve moved on. We’ve set up a virtuous circle that lets people know that their contribution counts. This crew has produced phenomenal results, and now it’s motivated to do even better. My attitude is, once you start perestroika, you can’t really stop it. The people on this ship know that they are part owners of this organization. They know what results they get when they play an active role. And they now have the courage to raise their hands and to get heard. That’s almost irreversible. (Polly LaBarre, 1999)

The most notable element of Abrashoff’s influence on the management practices in place at the Benfold is that they have lasted longer than his own time with that ship. He argues that much of his success is due to giving people a voice and that once you give peope a voice, it is hard to silence them.


The most startling component of Abrashoff”s story is the environment from which is emanates. Typically, when one thinks on the management structure in place in the armed forces, one is led to assume a very strictly enforced hierarchical chain of command. While Abrashoff maintained a strict chain of command during combat time, he utilized more impressive management strategies during non-combat time and was able to distinguish between the two

Most notable, was Abrashoff’s ability to get feedback from the staff of the Benfold. That type of intelligence is incredibly valuable and typically hard to receive. I believe that his ability to receive that feedback was contingent on the fact that he used the feedback in very visible adjustments to the operating procedure and in doing so he enforced the idea that he was not just another ear with no brain.
Another reason that Abrashoff’s methods were impressive was that he was very willing to question and criticize the organizational history of the Benfold. Often, one finds that managers are in some ways constrained by the history of their predecessors. This convention can plague organizations, especially those with as much history as the US Navy. Abrashoff was very active in his attack on this tendency. He listened to his people and made changes that other commanders would have considered insane, just because they were so entrenched in the organizational history. For example, he put in place measures so that his freshed people would not have to be encumbered with the demoralizing task of continually painting the ship. Other commanders may have seen this activity as tradition, but Abrashoff was able to consider it from a clear management position and see it as a time and moral waster.

Abrashoff’s unique management style has promoted him to a position in DC and he is no longer the commander of the Benfold, but his accomplishments live on and can be followed at the USS Benfold’s link below.



From → Coursework

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