The day D. Michael Abrashoff was installed as captain of the naval destroyer USS Benfold changed his life.
The changing of command for a ship is a big deal in the Navy. Many of the Navy's top brass attend, as do dignitaries and politicians. More often than not, families of both the exiting and incoming captains are there.
The ceremony takes approximately 90 minutes with speeches commending the former captain is. All in all, it's intended as a celebration of the outgoing captain's tenure.
But on this day, in the summer of 1997, the celebration took an ugly turn. As the exiting captain left the ship with his parents, his wife and children in tow, the crew cheered loudly because they were happy he was leaving.
Abrashoff, who had never seen such a display of disrespect, remembers thinking, “I hope that doesn't happen to me in two years when I leave the ship. What do I have to do to keep that from happening?”
That event forced him to evaluate and then adjust his command philosophy. The success he naval command enjoyed the next two years eventually led him to set up an organization called Grassroots Leadership and to write the book It's Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, which became a New York Times bestseller.
Abrahshoff will share the lessons of those two years when he addresses the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention in Las Vegas during the “Super Workshop” on Feb. 3.
The U.S. military is all about giving and taking orders. They teach that in boot camp and that philosophy is reinforced all the way up the chain of command. And that is what gets practiced in many companies throughout the world, notes Abrashoff.
Dealers, though, will hear a different message. Companies can ill afford to practice what Abrashoff calls “command and control leadership” — where you tell your people what to do, when to do it and how to do it.
Abrashoff believes the fight of the 21st century is how to attract and retain the best employees. Yes, they have that problem in the Navy also. And it is a major one. Navy personnel have the option of putting in transfers. High turnover rates, which are common, can negatively affect a ship's readiness for battle.
When Abrashoff took command of the Benfold, the retention rate for the ship's sailors was 28%. In the next two years, Abrashoff managed to increase retention to almost 100%.
Not only was he able to retain his crew, he took a ship that had one of the worse reputations in the Navy and turned it into one that became the best-run ship in the entire Pacific fleet.
He learned that the best employees always will have options and will not work for a company where they don't have respect, or are valued.
Being the one in charge involves more than giving orders and expecting others to follow. Instead, Abrashoff talks about creating an environment that causes the people in the front lines — such as dealership service and sales people — to take personal ownership in the success of the organization. “They're the ones who are going to have the relationship with the customer,” says Abrashoff.
Successful leaders hand out responsibility, not orders, he says. They communicate purpose to the employees and then provide the environment that helps them accomplish the purpose.
Abrashoff, who drives a Porsche 911 Cabriolet, a purchase he treated himself to when he made the New York Times bestseller list, says his purchase experience was great at the dealership.
But he can't say the same thing about two dealerships that serviced another upscale European vehicle he owns.
“Words can't describe how bad the service has been,” he says. “It has been the worst I have ever encountered.” As a result, he says he'll never buy that brand car again.