By its nature, the military isn’t a democracy. But when he took command of the U.S.S. Benfold in 1997 at age 36, Mike Abrashoff departed from the norm by ensuring every crew member had a voice.
The prime example of his grassroots leadership philosophy is the “after action reviews” that Abrashoff—who delivered a keynote address at the CUNA CFO Council Conference Sunday in Anaheim, Calif.—regularly held on the destroyer’s bridge.
There, representatives of various areas of the ship gathered to critique recent performance using three ground rules:
“The lowest-ranking seaman could challenge the captain,” Abrashoff explains. “And if they were right—if I was doing things that caused them to do needless additional work—I would change.
“If they were wrong,” he continues, “it meant there was something they didn’t understand, and it allowed me to have a coachable moment where I could say, ‘Hey, here’s the big picture: Here’s how you contribute to the success of the overall mission.’”
The bottom line, according to Abrashoff: “I wanted every sailor to feel like they were responsible for the successful outcome of that ship. Because they were. I couldn’t do it on my own.”
That approach, which Abrashoff detailed in his book “It’s Your Ship,” enabled the Benfold to transform from the worst-performing ship in the Pacific fleet to the most combat-ready in just one year; to trim crew turnover to 1%; and to cut expenses by 25%.
Notably, Abrashoff did so without having the power to hire, fire, or promote personnel. As such, his keynote relates to the situation people at many organizational levels face: being held accountable for results without having the ability to make the rules.
He offered strategies, tactics, and tools to lead significant change and increase operational performance.
“Spend some time thinking about what your own leadership story is, and think about the things that have caused you to be the success you are today,” Abrashoff advises. “Then ask yourself, ‘What do we need to do to continue to up our game so we can continue to control our own destiny?’ Nobody can take their own future for granted. We’ve got to go out and fight for it every day.”