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Book review: It’s our ship so be an engaging leader

It’s Our Ship: The No-Nonsense Guide to Leadership

By Michael Abrashoff

Business Plus


New employee orientations can create memories that last a lifetime. Here’s what’s burned into my brain after some 100 hours worth of new hire welcome wagons.

I remember the manager who wrapped up his presentation by pulling the trigger on a fire extinguisher and spraying the stage with flame-retardant foam. This could of been the highlight of a marathon day of orienteering if not for the half-hour spiel on the safe and responsible use of fire extinguishers which, you may be surprised to learn, are never ever to be used as a toy, weapon or practical joke.

There was the manager who took the “tell us what you do” boilerplate presentation to its extreme and gave us a minute-by-minute recap of his typical day. It was awe-inspiring and left us all wondering how and where he’d found the inner strength for the past 30 years to get out of bed and show up for work.

Then there was the sour-faced manager who told us this wasn’t the sort of workplace where we could spit on the floor anytime we felt like it (had I known, I would never have left my old job) and then rhymed off all the ways in which we could get ourselves reprimanded or “fired so fast it would make your head spin”. Building on the “things you shouldn’t even think of doing around here” theme, another manager showed us grainy surveillance footage of thieves stealing pricey office equipment. Fortunately the crooks bore no passing resemblance to any of us new hires in the room and we were smart enough not to yell out “hey, that’s my cousin Clem Junior!”.

And how could I forget the manager who valiantly tried and failed to make the mandatory Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) training even remotely interesting. We were told a cautionary tale about an employee who forgot the first rule of WHMIS and flushed out the lunchroom coffee machine with an unapproved home cleaning product. A co-worker assumed the coffee pot was full of water and used the cleaner to brew a fresh pot of toxic java. He may well of died had he chugged back a jumbo-sized double double. So let that be a lesson to you all.

Finally, there was the manager who introduced us to the commitment curve concept and broke the news that our love affair with our new employer would eventually end with a temporary or permanent period of self-doubt, second thoughts and quiet desperation.  No mention was made of whether the forced march to mandatory new employee orientation training pushed us headfirst down the slope of diminishing engagement.

What I don’t remember so well are warm welcomes and powerful reminders of how we’d just joined a winning team where we’d work together to make the world a better place in a whole lot of remarkable ways.

So compare your orientation flashbacks to the approach taken by author Michael Abrashoff when he was captain of the USS Benfold. Abrashoff personally sent welcome-aboard letters to all new officers outlining what to expect, what to focus on and how to start preparing.  He also sent along the ship’s schedule for the coming months, information on the ship’s home port of San Diego and a Benfold bumper sticker and ball cap.

“Whether you’re sizing up a college campus, thinking of joining a civic group or showing up on a new job, first impressions set the tone for all that follows,” says Abrashoff.  “Welcome people aboard before they’re aboard.”

Abrashoff wasted no time revamping the Benfold’s orientation process. “The program for welcoming new shipmates consisted of the same old tired procedure that had been used since time out of mind. We owed our people better than this.”  In the past, sailors from small town America were left to figure out how to get from the big city airport or bus terminal to the ship and fend for themselves along the way.

He challenged one of his senior officers to design a better orientation program by imagining that his five-year-old daughter was joining the Navy on her 18th birthday. Not surprisingly this lit a fire and drove a major overhaul. 

New sailors were now met at their airport and brought to their quarters and already-made beds. They met their command duty officer and then went to the captain’s cabin where they called their parents or spouse to let them know they’d arrived safely. On the first weekend, the new shipmates were shown around the base, the gym, health club and commissary and were taken on off-base sightseeing.  

“We wanted them to feel right at home, not like strangers on a bad trip. It’s clearly in your own best interest to recruit your people every day, starting with Day One and never stopping. Make sure your recruits get off on the right foot, fired with enthusiasm and with the proper road map in hand.”

Abrashoff also recounts how he inspired everyone to be their best, cultivated truth-telling, unified the 310-member crew, created a climate of trust, clarified the ship’s mission and priorities, took the right risks and led by example.

The results paid off.  Abrashoff and his crew turned the USS Benfold, a billion-dollar high-tech but dysfunctional guided missile destroyer, into the most combat-ready and go-to ship in the Pacific Fleet.

Along the way, Abrashoff learned perhaps the most important leadership lesson. As a leader, it’s not your ship. It’s everyone’s ship.  And everyone contributes to a successful voyage.

“I discovered that leaders without humility are like apples without cores: seedless and sterile. Nearly all organizations pulsing with life owe it to some empathetic leader given to looking not into the mirrors but into other people’s faces and feelings.”

Treat people with respect and don’t pit them against each other in ruthless competition, says Abrashoff.  “Teach collaboration, the liberating power of disparate people uniting their talents for a common purpose. It’s the leader’s tool for making an organization unbeatable.”

Start spreading the news

A PowerPoint and handbook on how to help community groups generate positive press is posted here on Part of a media relations summer camp for partners of the Hamilton Roundtable on Poverty Reduction.

Book review: 7 choices worth making

Boom! 7 Choices For Blowing The Doors Off Business-as-Usual
By Kevin and Jackie Freiberg
Thomas Nelson

We’re at a waterpark resort in the honeymoon capital of Canada. It’s
been a great day for the kids. A long day for the parents. And the
night is still young.

We’re off to a bedtime story in the front lobby. Dozens of kids in
their PJs crowd around a talking tree. Also taking centre stage is a
20-something staffer who’s drawn the short straw and has to perform for
over-stimulated and over-tired preschoolers who are this close to
hitting the wall.

No sooner has he launched into the story than the kids starts buzzing.
The staffer is holding his book upside down. Some kids find this
hilarious. Others find it a cause for grave concern. Then the heckling
starts. “Turn the book around,” shout the kids while the clueless
staffer kibitzes with the talking tree.

And that’s when my then four-year-old daughter gets up, works her way
to the front of the crowd, walks over to the staffer and turns his book
right-side up. I feel like cheering and telling the groggy and soggy
parents lining the perimeter “that’s my kid!”. Here’s hoping I’ve just
witnessed a lifelong habit my daughter never tries to break.

So how about your folks at work? How many would follow my daughter’s
lead? And how many would sit there griping and groaning about how
someone should do something at some point?

If you believe the research, 75 per cent of us are disengaged and less
than loyal to our employers. From the frontlines to the presidential
suite, we’re dead people walking. We’re miserable, bored out of our
minds, screwing up our careers, short-changing our organizations and
shirking our civic duties.

Authors Kevin and Jackie Freiberg have an immediate and simple
solution. Start exercising our freedom to choose. “The freedom to
choose may be the most powerful attribute and precious resource you
have in your life. It shapes who you become, how you express yourself,
the success you achieve, and the influence you have in your world.”

Now, lots of us like to believe our freedom to choose is severely
restricted. We blame our boss, our coworkers, the corporate culture.
Senior leadership is too hands on. Too hands off. There’s no clear
vision. Or it’s the wrong vision. Sure, our supervisors are toxic and
the work is soul-crushing dull but we have mouths to feed and a
mortgage to pay.

Yet not choosing is still a choice and not a very smart one. “By
rationalizing that you have no choice, you are choosing not to
recognize legitimate alternatives that are yours for the taking. You
are stuck in a comfort zone of inaction that is functional and safe but
leaves you dead and disengaged. Your choice comes with an unhealthy
price tag, one that could cost you more than the price you would’ve
paid for constructive confrontation or moving on.”

The Freibergs have come up with a seven-choice manifesto that they
claim will blow the doors off your career, your workplace and your
community. “If you accept our call to arms and join this revolution, at
least three things will happen. You will expand your influence, you
will become a positive force for change and you will live with fewer

Choose to be a player, not a bystander. Get off the sidelines and onto
the field. Know who you are and what you believe in. Take a stand. Join
the dialogue and shape the debate. Think and act like owners. Refuse
to sell out. And be the change you wish to see in the world.

Choose to be accountable. Quit the blame game and stop casting yourself
in the role of victim. “Accept the fact that no one is going to ride in
on a white horse and rescue you or your organization. No one is going
to magically lift the weight of responsibility from your shoulders.
Don’t wait for others to show you the way. Blaze the trail yourself.”

Choose service over self-interest. It’ll keep your ego in check and
save you from becoming an intolerable self-centred jerk. Take it from
Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffet, who’s donated pretty much his
entire $44 billion estate to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“The hell of it is you’re only going to be loved if you’re lovable. If
you are, you get it back in spades. The truth is you always get back
more than you give away. Some people never learn that.”

Choose to focus forward. Sure, you can fixate on what went wrong, who’s
to blame and make excuses. Or you can focus on what’s right, what can
be done and how you can be part of the solution. “The most important
thing about you today is not where you’ve been; it’s where you are

Choose to play to your genius. “Engagement increases when you lean into
your strengths, not your weaknesses.” Take it a step further. Figure
out what you’re good at, what you’re passionate about and where you can
make the greatest contribution. This leads to your sweet spot, where
work will never again feel like work.

Choose to get it done. It’s not about what you shoulda, woulda, coulda
done. It’s all about what you’re doing. Champion a culture of results
over a culture of red tape and rhetoric. Don’t be the wet blanket at
work who dampens, disheartens, iscourages and sucks the life out of us.
Instead, cultivate vitality, energy and buzz.

Choose to risk more, gain more. Sticking with the status quo is
actually the bigger risk for you and your organization. “You can’t
innovate without experimenting, you can’t experiment without making
mistakes, and you can’t make mistakes unless you’re willing to risk
failure and rejection.”

So no more procrastination. No more rationalizations, laying blame or
playing the victim. Get off the sidelines. Run onto the field.

“Time is a tyrant,” say the Freibergs. “It takes no prisoners and it
never stands till. The moments of opportunity you miss at work and in
life can never be regained. Your life is not a dress rehearsal. Your
life is now. Time is ticking.”

Jay Robb works in Hamilton and blogs at

Customer service done right

Went to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum yesterday afternoon in search of a birthday gift for The Person Who Has Everything.

You can book flights on vintage planes at the museum and buzz around Hamilton.

We got talking with the staffer who works the front desk. Also at the front desk was a volunteer who was on his way out the door.

The volunteer overheard our conversation and offered to take us back into the hanger to tour the planes. He talked about what was most popular, what he liked to fly. Also showed us where folks have lunch and where they watch planes coming and going.

We wound up getting a membership to the museum and getting a gift certificate for a flight.

The volunteer who made the time to show us around sealed the deal.

So who’s closing the deal in your organization?

Start spreading the news

A few weeks back, I helped proofread posters for a report to the community event put on by the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction. Dozens of community groups submitted posters.

Download NHCNC.pdf for a sample poster.

Didn’t find any typos in the posters.

But I did find a ton of great story ideas. Stories that have yet to be told. Stories that should be told.

So, to help these groups share their stories with the world, the Poverty Roundtable, Mohawk College and the Hamilton Spectator have put together a free media relations summer camp for community groups.

The camp runs over 3 days. And just 2 hours a day (it’s summer and who has the attention span for full-day events?).

Day one is a media relations overview. Day two is a chance to polish and practice pitches with local PR pros. Day three is a meet-the-press event with editors and reporters at the Hamilton Spectator, along with a newsroom tour. We’ll also give out a media relations handbook, key contact lists and take a run at creating an online media experts guide.

I posted this presentation last Friday for folks to review. The editorial team at Slideshare made it one of their featured presentations and by Monday morning, more than 970 people had viewed it and nearly 100 had downloaded it.

If you want to get the word out, or share your expertise with the world, start posting PowerPoint to And putting it there will raise your game when it comes to putting together slide shows (no death by PowerPoint on this site).

A maximizing, empathetic, adaptable, futuristic activator

Did Gallup’s online strengths development program.

Results were pretty much dead-on. Helps explain why and how I can irritate folks to no end.

The program’s ideas for action summary is helpful.

My top 5 themes:

  1. Maximizer: seek to transform something strong into something superb. Introduce a spirit of optimism, energy and enthusiasm to individuals and groups. You have little interest in simply repeating what worked in the past.
  2. Empathy: can sense the feelings of other people. You allow people to experience and express their feelings. You can ilsten to anyone.
  3. Adaptability: prefer to go with the flow. You feel your life is a lot more interesting when you are not forced to follow set routines, rigid rules and/or predictable plans. Chances are good you avoid individuals who work non-stop, never taking a break. 
  4. Futuristic: Inspired by the future and what could be.  
  5. Activator: You seldom wait for orders or directions from people in positions of authority. You probably operate on the premise that it is better to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission. People who interfere with your progress probably irritate you.