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.”

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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