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Mike Abrashoff

Commander’s advice: empower your people

The top-down management style doesn’t work anymore. Dictators aren’t respected by workers, and dictatorships don’t produce the best results. Empower your people.

That was the message delivered by Mike Abrashoff, former Commander of USS Benfold and author, in his keynote presentation, “Achieving a Breakthrough Performance.”

“You tell them, ‘It’s your ship. You own this. You’re empowered to do it,’ ” he said. “I discovered if you tell people how to do things, they’re going to become order takers. And order takers don’t accept ownership or accountability for the results. But if you empower them and engage them and ask them, ‘What do you think?’ and they came up with a solution, they own it. And once they own it, they lift the burdens off my shoulders so I can go worry about something else.

“The top-down approach, with men in control telling people what to do and how to do it … It used to work. You could get results from that. But you know what? In today’s business world and today’s military, it’s a failed leadership strategy. Because if you have that top-down approach, you are not going to have the best employees wanting to come work for you. They’re not going to stay with you and you’re not going to be able to attract better ones when they leave.”

At age 36, Abrashoff was selected to become Commander of USS Benfold, making him the most junior commanding officer in the US Pacific Fleet on a ship that was plagued by low morale, high turnover, and abysmal performance evaluations. Twelve months later, the ship was ranked #1 in performance using the same crew. 

Abrashoff wrote a book, It’s Your Ship, which became a bestseller and now has sold over one million copies.

Here are some other nuggets of advice for company executives from Abrashoff:

Reward employees.

“I started giving out daily achievement medals. I’d walk around the ship with medals in my pocket. I’d put it on their chest right on the spot and thank them for going the extra mile.”

Earn their trust.

“We are in the trust business. You can’t order your customers to trust you. You can’t order your crew to trust you. It’s something you have to work at every day. But once you have a foundation of trust in your relationship, it’s the basis for which you can accomplish anything.”

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