I have interviewed many naval officers over the course my reporting career, — from young j.g.s to admirals. But there is one officer and his crew that always comes to the top my list as one of the most exceptional sailors I’ve ever met.
In 1999, I was flown out to the guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold to meet whom the Navy considered the best destroyer captain in the Pacific, Lt. Cmdr. Michael Abrashoff.
Two years prior and before Abrashoff arrived to take command, the Benfold quite frankly was considered one of the poorest-performing ships in the Navy with low battle readiness and poor morale. But during his two-year stint he changed the ship’s culture making it the go-to ship with a crack crew – 100 percent reenlistment; first in the fleet gunnery; best combat efficiency, and gourmet chefs who were the envy of other ships.
Her crew called her “the best damn ship in the Navy.” Pacific Fleet commanders called her the 911 ship, always ready and willing for the most difficult missions.
When I arrived onboard Benfold by helicopter, I was immediately made part of the crew and given an assignment.
The Combat Systems Officer, Lt. Scott Graham took me into the darkened Combat Information Center, sat me in his chair and had me put on a headset.
Large computer screens showed forces at sea and in the air. Men and women (the ship was built from the keel up to accommodate female crewmembers) worked at various scopes and computer screens that are the interface between humans and the Aegis Combat System.
The ship was in the middle of a virtual cruise missile launch in a wargame involving Marines at Twenty-nine Palms Marine Base and an Air Force Boeing 707 JSTARS flying somewhere over Nevada.
I was brought up to speed by Graham as they readied for the launch.
Looking around the room, I spoke into the microphone, “which person would be doing the launch?”
“You will,” Graham said.
Graham had the confidence in his voice that said he knew what he was doing. He walked me through every procedure, voices from the people came through the headset and then almost without any fanfare, the missile was launched.
The professionalism the men and women showed in allowing a civilian to be part of the exercise demonstrated the command support of its captain sitting several decks above, on the bridge.
What was supposed to be a one-day trip stretch to four as fog would roll in and out making it impossible to take off in the helicopter. Fortunately for me, it gave me time to spend with the crew and meet with the Abrashoff.
“If I was going to turn this ship around, I needed to see it from the sailor’s perspective,” Abrashoff said.
What made the Benfold special is how Abrashoff gave his officers and crew the responsibility to make the changes needed to make the ship more combat efficient – after all, that’s why we build these $1 billion warships.
From top down Abrashoff looked at every corner of the ship and interviewed every sailor on board.
Instead of having sailors spend time filing away rust and repainting nuts and bolts, he went to a machine shop in San Diego and replaced every one of them with stainless steel and special coating that would last 30 years.
Rather than spending money on purchasing food from Navy suppliers, his chiefs were given orders to buy better food at a Costco, which was cheaper. He took the savings and sent three of the ship’s cooks to the best chefs in San Diego to be trained. From the top brass in San Diego down to the blue shirts of other ships, they all came to have a least one meal prepared by the Benfold’s new gourmet chefs.
When bugs showed up in computer systems, he unleashed the talents of his petty officers to find solutions outside the manuals to fix the problems. These solutions were then sent out to the other destroyers in the fleet to prevent malfunctions, downtime and expensive repairs.
Along with giving the crewmembers responsibility came accountability. In short, don’t kill anyone, don’t hurt anyone, don’t waste the taxpayers dollars and don’t damage the ship.
“It’s your ship, I told them,” Abrashoff said, “You don’t have to ask for permission to do something that is in your operating area,” whether it be in berthing compartments or at battle stations.
Abrashoff is no longer in the Navy, a sad loss for our nation. But some of his officers are still in, and using his management techniques. Graham, for example, is serving as the commanding officer at an operational support center in Quincy,Mass.
What we do have from Abrashoff are several management skills books taken from his experience on board the Benfold: “It’s Your Ship: Management Skills from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy”, “It’s Our Ship: The No-nonsense Guide to Leadership” and “Get your Ship Together: How Great Leaders Inspire Ownership from the Keel Up.”
I highly recommend all these books for inspiration and how to change the culture within your organization.