AAHOA is proud to welcome Mike Abrashoff as a featured speaker at the 2019 AAHOA Convention this month in San Diego. Take a few minutes to get to know him, and don’t miss his presentation at AAHOACON19.
CAN YOU GIVE US A RUNDOWN ON YOUR PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND?
I graduated from the Naval Academy in 1982, and I was fortunate to hold several important jobs, one of which was to be the No. 2 military assistant to Secretary of Defense Dr. William Perry. From there, I went on to command the USS Benfold. When I took command, it was one of the worst ships in the Pacific fleet; 15 months later, we got the trophy for being the best. Then, I was featured in Fast Company magazine and the Harvard Business Review, and people said I should write a book. So, I left the Navy and wrote “It’s Your Ship,” and the publisher thought I might sell 20,000 copies. I’ve now sold more than 1.1 million and have been speaking ever since.
WAS JOINING THE NAVY SOMETHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO DO?
It wasn’t. I played football in high school and was recruited to play at several universities. After I signed my letter of intent with William & Mary, the Naval Academy called and asked me to come visit. So I went there, saw the place, loved it, and I realized that I loved being on the water. So, I went to the Naval Academy instead.
HOW DO YOU USE THE LEADERSHIP LESSONS YOU LEARNED IN THE NAVY IN YOUR EVERYDAY LIFE?
I learned to prioritize in the Navy, and on the ship, I tried to get my sailors out of doing $5-an-hour work so that we had time in the day to figure out how to defend ourselves better. And I’ve taken that approach to my personal life. Is what I’m spending my time on getting me greater results, or am I stuck doing $5-an-hour work? I’m constantly evaluating how I can be doing things better and more efficiently. And something Dr. Perry told me that I’ve kept with me to this day is that it’s easy to say “No,” but if that’s always your answer, no one will want to work with you or associate with you. If you develop saying “Yes” as your professional reputation, people will want to do business with you. So, I changed our mindset on the ship from being “No” to “We will find a way to get to ‘Yes.’”
WHY DO YOU THINK PEOPLE ARE SO INTERESTED IN YOUR STORY?
A lot of people who write books are academic types. They study how other people should do it, whereas I was in the trenches leading a group of people who didn’t start life at the top rung of the economic ladder. I couldn’t choose our missions or the people I worked with, and I couldn’t go back and ask for money to get the job done. And yet, we persevered. Also, I focused on the things that I could influence instead of becoming distracted by the things I couldn’t influence. That approach resonates with people, and they face the same challenges that I faced.
DO YOU HAVE ANY WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT TO SOMEONE NEW TO A LEADERSHIP ROLE?
I interviewed all 310 sailors on the ship individually. That had never been done before in the history of the Navy. I got to know their names, their spouses’ names, their children’s names, their hometowns. And I challenged them. I told them that I don’t care about their age, their rank, or how long they’d been in the Navy. I wanted them to come to work every day and challenge every aspect of our operation. If you have an idea of how to improve something one percent, I want to hear from you. If we’re one percent better today than we were yesterday, and one percent better tomorrow than we are today, nobody will touch us.