Culture of Communication

Every year, the MHEDA staff does an unbelievable job finding the best speakers for its annual Convention. Each year, I’m completely blown away by the keynote and think to myself, “There’s no way they can top that next year.” And each year, without fail, they manage to outdo themselves. This year, though, I don’t have to wonder. I couldn’t be more excited about Commander Michael Abrashoff’s keynote presentation on Monday, May 6th, from 8:30 a.m. – 9:30 a.m. I know it’s going to be a can’t-miss presentation because I had the opportunity to see Commander Abrashoff speak at a previous conference and I was so blown away by him that I actually stepped out in the middle of the presentation to call the MHEDA office to tell them to look into booking him for Convention.

Not only was his message compelling, but his way of presenting was so engaging and authentic. His overarching message about the way culture must begin at the top of the organization and organically work its way all the way down through each level is universal. And he delivers it in a way that you can’t help but hang on every word.

One anecdote that stuck with me after seeing his presentation, I had the opportunity to ask Commander Abrashoff about when I spoke with him for the article in the upcoming issue of The MHEDA Journal. It had to do with his very first day aboard the USS Benfold. As Commander Abrashoff was preparing to be sworn in as Commander of the ship, he saw his predecessor preparing to leave the ship for the very last time. And instead of respectful clapping or salutes, he saw the crew of the ship literally cheering as he left, hooting and hollering that he would be leaving. This was a moment that really stuck with him as he prepared for his command.

“I began to ask myself the question, ‘I wonder, if as I was coming up through the ranks, if any of my sailors cheered whenever I got transferred,’” he says. “I didn’t know the answer to that question, and since I didn’t know that answer, it meant I wasn’t as self-aware as I needed to be in how I was being perceived by the people I was trying to lead.”

At that moment, Commander Abrashoff swore to himself that he would no longer have to wonder again if he was the type of leader who would have his sailors cheer when he transferred. He began the process of improving processes every day. In just 15 short months, Commander Abrashoff was able to take the same crew of sailors who had been one of the very worst performing ships in the Pacific Fleet to an award-winning ship, winning the Spokane Trophy as the highest performing ship in the Pacific Fleet. The crew set a record that still stands today for the highest gunnery score in Naval history, scoring 104.4 points out of a possible 105.

One way that the ship was able to turn the culture around was by speaking with each sailor, 310 in all, individually. “I don’t care what your age is or what your rank is. You can come into work every day and challenge 240 years of rules and regulations, and if you have an idea that can improve something even 1 percent, I want to hear from you. I want to be better today than we were yesterday and better tomorrow than we were today,” he says.

By speaking with each sailor individually, Abrashoff was able to not only listen to and implement new ideas from voices that hadn’t traditionally been heard, he was also able to connect with the crew on a personal level, increasing retention rate on the ship from 8 percent to nearly 100 percent, winning the Navy’s Golden Anchor for highest retention rate in the Navy.

The lesson I took from Commander Abrashoff is that “this is the way we’ve always done things” is not a good reason to continue to do things that way and that oftentimes the best ideas don’t come from the corner office. This sentiment was echoed by our MHEDA Board Members in the Ask Your Board feature. Do you have an example of an idea that has come from your staff? Tweet your story @MHEDA_Journal and use the #mheda hashtag.

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