Thoughts on leadership from a former Navy commander

By |  March 5, 2018


Are you the person your employees would choose to lead your operation? What happens when your workforce is smarter than you? What is your own leadership story?

These are some of the questions Mike Abrashoff, a former naval commander, posed to aggregate producers during the opening general session of the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association‘s Annual Convention in Houston.

Abrashoff took command of one of the worst performing ships in the Navy’s Pacific Fleet at age 36. His ship, the U.S.S. Benfold, had the highest accident rate of any ship in the Navy at the time, and it had some of the worst overall performance metrics.

At the change-of-command ceremony for Abrashoff’s predecessor, the crew cheered knowing the departing commander would no longer be in charge. Those mock cheers served as an indicator to Abrashoff that work was ahead of him. He set out to drive improvements aboard the ship, and he started by listening to his crew.

“I interviewed every sailor,” he says. “I turned the military hierarchy upside down. I didn’t care about rank or how long they’ve been in the organization. If you have an idea on how to improve something one percent, I want to hear from you. My goal was to be better tomorrow than we were today, and to be better today than we were yesterday.

“I told the crew this is their ship,” Abrashoff adds.

The U.S.S. Benfold hemorrhaged crew members for years before Abrashoff arrived. His predecessors let crew member contracts expire before the Navy could properly sell sailors on returning for another couple of years.

This was how the Navy always did things. Abrashoff sought to change the system.

“Nine months before contracts ended I would interview [crew] and ask what can we do to get you to stay,” Abrashoff says. “They would offer feedback.”

The conversations showed the crew of the U.S.S. Benfold that someone in a high-ranking capacity valued their opinion. The crew felt empowered, and the retention rate of sailors aboard the ship rose dramatically.

The culture aboard the ship improved remarkably under Abrashoff’s command, as well. Abrashoff estimates he spent 50 to 60 percent of his days listening to his crew, getting their feedback and instituting common sense procedures that eluded previous commanders of the ship because they did not listen.

As commander, Abrashoff was open to challenging put-in-place procedures if even small gains could be made.

“When walking around, I wanted to fix something I hated about the Navy,” he says. “Usually, we’re looking for people screwing up so we could reprimand them. Why not look for someone doing something great so I could thank them?”

Abrashoff did just that.

“I decided to catch them in the act, pat them on the back and thank them for going the extra mile,” he says. “If someone was out on a piece of equipment working all night, I told [my team] to let me know so I could go thank them.”

The recognition went a long way with his crew, Abrashoff adds.

“It gives them validation to deliver even better results,” he says. “Many of them who come to work for us have never had that validation. They never got it at school, home or in the community.”

Abrashoff also set simple examples for his crew to follow that led to improvements aboard the U.S.S. Benfold.

“Our ship was dirty,” he says. “If there was trash on the deck, I would pick it up. Probably no captain in the Navy would ever pick that up, but by walking past it you’re saying you accept that.”

While a Navy ship and crushed stone, sand and gravel operations are different work environments, the messages Abrashoff imparts apply nicely to the aggregate industry.

“You’re not perfect,” Abrashoff says. “But we never made a big mistake, and we never made the same mistake twice. We created a culture that was the safest by engaging our crew and empowering them and getting them to take personal responsibility for the results.”

Can you say the same about yourself as a leader?

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About the Author:

Kevin Yanik is editor-in-chief of Pit & Quarry. He can be reached at 216-706-3724 or

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