“What about Captain Abrashoff?”
That question, or one like it, came up quite a bit in response to last week’s column that explained that, like it or not, there are times when the most effective way to shake up a complacent organization is to downsize to get rid of all the second and third-raters in one sweep instead of trying to justify their terminations one at a time.
If you don’t recall Captain Abrashoff, he took over command of the U.S.S. Benfold when it was one of the worst-rated ships in the Navy, and in less than a year transformed it into one of the highest-rated, recounting his experience in It’s Your Ship.
Captain Abrashoff didn’t lay off staff or terminate any managers. He did clearly articulate the culture change he was trying to achieve, and he established direct communication channels with the staff. Or as he put it, with the men and women who served on the Benfold.
Which isn’t a throwaway phrase, by the way: By calling them “men and women,” Abrashoff sent two unmistakable messages to everyone under his command: He respected them; and he considered them adults, with all the expectations that implies. Compare the impact of “men and women” with “rank and file” and you’ll understand the point.
If Abrashoff could shake off the dust with no staff changes, why did I endorse the use of manager firings and large-scale downsizings?
It’s a great question, which is to say it made me think … a lot … about whether I’d given the best advice last week.
So here’s my answer: Yes. But.
Commanding a destroyer in the Navy isn’t perfectly parallel to managing a department in a business. When you command a destroyer you don’t compete with other ships for men and women who have the right to decide which ship they’ll work on. Nor can you easily terminate staff: “Downsizing” isn’t even a concept, and firing for cause is a very serious business compared to the world of business.
Which is to say, Abrashoff achieved an amazing improvement in performance with the officers and staff he inherited from his predecessor. We don’t know the extent to which performance might have improved had he also had the opportunity to hand-pick his officers and sailors. Nor do we know the extent to which he would have been unable to improve performance had other ships in the Navy had the opportunity to recruit the best officers and sailors from the Benfold while it was under the ineffective leadership of his predecessor.
Different circumstances call for different solutions.
Which doesn’t mean Abrashoff’s experience and ideas are irrelevant. Quite the opposite. Abrashoff did achieve a remarkable turnaround. That means his experience and ideas all have relevance.
Among the many lessons to be learned, one stands out. Twice. The lesson: The person in charge has a huge impact on performance.
We’ll cover the first impact this week: If you’ve been the leader of a complacent organization for any length of time and the organization is still complacent, the problem is you. Before you can fix the organization, you have something in your own attitudes and behaviors to repair first. What is it? I have a sneaky technique for finding out.
Make a list of the managers who report to you. For each, write down three characteristics that really bug you; then write down three characteristics you admire. Consolidate the results so you have two lists — one of traits you dislike in others; the other of traits you look for.
Stop reading and go through the exercise. Don’t continue until you have.
* * *Look at the first list — the “bugs me” list. Chances are good it consists of two types of character trait: Those you share, and those that offset your shortcomings. Occasionally, the list will also include traits you don’t share that require change, too, but they’ll be the exception.
Prune the list so it includes only the traits you share. Doing so will require brutal honesty, of course, so think about enlisting the help of your spouse or a very close friend. Post the result where you’ll see it every day. It describes mental habits you need to lose. Be alert — the moment you’re under stress they’ll almost certainly recur.
Now look at the “traits I value” list. If you’re a strong leader it will consist of traits that complement your own strengths — that provide abilities you lack that the organization needs. If, on the other hand, the traits you value describe ways your managers resemble you, you’re hiring yourself.
That’s generally a mistake. After all, one of the most basic principles of information technology is to eliminate redundancy.