Empowerment is a key aspect of building a strong culture and getting people engaged. In my work with various teams over the years, it is typically noted that an environment that features poor empowerment typically is more hierarchical, less vocal, less democratic, and people in general are less engaged and at its worse, less inclined to voice their thoughts or opinions. The outcome is typically a poor culture, quite often top-down driven. How can you create a collaborative, continuous improvement-inspired culture under these conditions?
The short answer in most cases is you cannot. When reflecting on culture and engagement recently, I pulled up a great book I had read in the past that really does a good job of capturing the essence of empowerment and the power behind it. “It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy”, by Captain Michael Abrashoff, is a book that stands out as far as not only empowerment but also strong leadership. The story, as told by Captain Abrashoff, details how he was able to take command of a U.S. Navy destroyer that was perhaps one of the worst-performing ships in the fleet. This particular ship was plagued with poor morale, an undisciplined and unmotivated crew, and practically had a zero retention rate – everyone wanted out after a stint on this ship and those who knew of it wanted no part of it. In fact, most of the crew wanted to be on a different ship when Abrashoff took command. Amazingly, Abrashoff was able to “turn the ship around”, significantly improve performance, make the ship, and crew one of the best in the Navy. The book chronicles the journey to go from underperforming to over-achieving. If you are a leader, how is the morale on your team or in your business? Would they rather be elsewhere? It is good practice to ensure you are getting the pulse of your team and/or organization consistently and adjusting course as needed.
The book offers some good techniques on leadership that resonate. All people in management or leadership positions should read this book. While some of the tips may not apply to all situations or individuals, many of them can be used in some capacity. The first and most powerful principle applied was empowerment. Abrashoff empowered the crew to begin making decisions and acting on what they believed was right. He did not micro-manage them like an insecure leader might or his predecessors on the ship. As a leader, do you micro-manage people or do you empower your employees to do their best work and make decisions? Do you trust them? Trust is an absolute in the world of strong teamwork and cultures, we know this. If you cannot trust, it is less likely you can empower others and it interferes with your ability to lead.
Additionally, Abrashoff decentralized the command structure so the empowered team members could make those decisions. He did not force all decisions to be escalated through leaders or himself but instead gave tactical decision-making authority at lower levels. In essence, by empowering his team (enlisted and officers) and decentralizing command, he put trust in his team which allowed them to begin to flourish and morale was boosted. This drove more ownership, as the crew began to see the ship as “their” ship. How is the leadership structure in your business or within your team? Is it decentralized or centralized where all decisions have to go upward for approval through you or others? What should it be? Getting the team to feel engaged through empowerment and seeing the business, or in this case, the “ship” as their own is a key breakthrough in building the right mindsets and culture.
Leaders who simply dictate and control the activity within their environments limit flexibility and create situations will people “only follow orders”. This leads to low engagement and poor cultures, as the teams do not really want to be there and are not being utilized effectively. This was the situation on the ship before Abrashoff took over. No one was going out of their way to develop ideas; there was little creativity and very few improvements. It was status quo at best. Perhaps the main point stressed in this book is to allow those under you to make decisions, and then to support them – the whole basis of empowerment. This ship turned into a ship with an enabled crew, which was the underlying force to propel it to a model ship of the fleet. An empowered staff at any business will only cause the business to be stronger and likely more successful. Is your environment more of a dictatorship or a collaborative one? Does the team actively engage to solve problems, develop creative solutions, and drive improvements? What type of leadership environment do you promote?
Another point to consider from the book was about the workplace or environment and making it more engaging and “fun”. Making the environment more positive benefits everyone including leadership and teams. For the most part, everybody wants to learn and grow. By encouraging the crew to grow professionally and personally, they began to take pride in the ship. People should be allowed to grow and succeed, but it is vital to allow for an atmosphere that is equitable so that all members of the staff can grow and improve both personally and professionally. Situations, where people improve at the expense of others, will only create a largely negative atmosphere. Captain Abrashoff was able to be a positive force in the growth of the crew, which allowed many to achieve success not only on the ship but in their life afterward. Do you actively promote professional development for your team? How about you? Do you actively work to improve yourself as a leader and foster the same culture of growth for your team?
For a business, it is expensive to deal with a high turnover rate. In the military, this is evident with fixed commitments and deployments, but Captain Abrashoff was able to circumvent this inherent problem by cultivating a high retention rate. Without the need to constantly retain new employees, time and money can be put to better use. What is the turnover in your organization? If it is high, why? What can you do as a leader to deal with it more effectively?
One final point from the book was how Abrashoff took command and at times, the crew would eat on the deck. He noticed how officers cut in front of the food line to be served first, as they were “privileged” to due to rank. When encouraging the Captain to do the same, he waited in the back of the line and let the crew be served first. This aligns with the concept “Leaders Eat Last”, another great book by Simon Sinek, which is a popular leadership concept in the Marine Corps as Sinek describes in that book. Abrashoff also sat with crewmembers and ate as well as conversed with them. This made him a more human and accessible leader, creating stronger bonds with the crew.
Other officers noted this behavior and began emulating it at subsequent lunches, fostering a more inclusive culture and showing the top leader can cast a long shadow. Do you or any other leaders in your organization take special privileges as leaders? Should they? If in a similar situation, would you cut to the front of the line ahead of lower-level staff or wait to be served and eat last? Would you sit with staff members to eat and converse? Answers to these questions say a lot about your leadership style.
Recommend checking out this great book. It really strikes a chord on leadership and empowerment from a different angle and drives some introspection if you are a leader. Especially if you are working to build (or turn around) a struggling culture, these concepts can help guide your thinking and approach. Best wishes on your path!
#leadership #culture #turnaround #empowerment #engagement #teamwork #lean