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Management lessons from the USS Benfold

Operating an 8,600 ton floating piece of artillery with radar so advanced it can detect a bird-sized object from 50 miles away is quite a responsibility. Doing so with a staff of 310 people, most of whom are under 25 years of age, and with a turnover rate of almost 35% can be a daunting task.

That’s the responsibility that was given to Captain D. Michael Abrashoff when he took command of the USS Benfold in June 1997.

In his book It’s Your Ship Captain Abrashoff explains how he turned a crew with low morale, high turnover, and questionable skills into a team that consistently set new standards for technical proficiency and battle readiness.

One of his comments in particular caught my attention. He writes, “Whenever I could not get the results I wanted, I swallowed my temper and looked inward to see if I was part of the problem. I asked myself three questions: Did I clearly articulate the goals? Did I give people enough time and resources to accomplish the task? Did I give them enough training? I discovered that 90% of the time, I was at least as much a part of the problem as my people were.”

NOTE:  Steve Toburen’s new favorite saying in SFS is: “The fish rots from the head down!” And yes, it usually does!

Imagine asking yourself these three questions every time you become frustrated because your people aren’t performing up to the standards you want or things aren’t going the way you want in your business.

#1- Did I clearly articulate the goals? As business owners we generally have a clear picture of what we want to accomplish in our businesses. Or at least we do in our own heads. The challenge is to accurately state that goal to the people we want to help us achieve it.

Put your goal in writing. Make placards with the goal written on it. And then, just to be sure your people understand it, ask them to tell you what it is.

#2- Did I give people enough time to accomplish the task? Patience is not a hallmark of most entrepreneurs. Many operate from the premise, “I say…you do.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t work well when you’re trying to grow a business.

Make sure you provide your people with enough time to completely understand the new information you give them, time to assimilate the changes that will take place, and an adequate budget to accomplish the goals you’ve set before them.

#3- Did I give them enough training? You know how it is in small business…we base our training according to how much time we have available to train rather than on how much time an employee needs to learn a new skill.

Develop the discipline to anticipate training needs in your company before you find yourself backed into a corner. And if you’re not the best trainer for a particular subject then delegate that responsibility to someone more qualified.

So the next time you become frustrated or angry because things aren’t going as well as you’d like in your business (or people aren’t progressing as quickly as you think they should) ask yourself the three questions Captain Abrashoff asked himself. When you do, you’ll probably find yourself turning your own ship around!

Chuck Violand (more about Chuck)
SFS Instructor
CEO Violand Management Associates

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