Book title: It's Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy
Authors: Captain Michael Abrashoff
Publication date: 2006
1. What is your overall impression of the book?
Commuting is my time: apart from a handful of scheduled phone calls, it is predominantly reserved for podcasts, occasionally an audiobook. Following a recommendation from one of our Trustees, my commute was filled with It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy.
Captain Abrashoff, a former US Navy Commander, best selling author and public speaker, reflects on the management and leadership techniques that helped his ship, the Benfold, become ‘the best damn ship in the Navy’. If somewhat self-indulgent, it is full of transferable advice, particularly to traditional and hierarchical organisations, as many schools are. For example, he explains that: ‘Leaders need to understand how profoundly they affect people, how their optimism and pessimism are equally infectious, how directly they set the tone and spirit of everyone around them.’
Though the staffing profile is very different on navy ships compared with schools, Abrashoff explores common themes, such as management, communicating purpose and meaning, listening and organisational efficiency. Retention and development of staff also feature highly, which is incredibly relevant to school leaders.
2. Who do you think would benefit most from reading the book? What will they learn?
Aspiring leaders and existing leaders – from middle leadership up – would benefit from reading It’s Your Ship. Learning and reading about leadership in different contexts can often reveal new perspectives on common challenges.
If you’re new to leadership, as Captain Abrashoff was, there are a number of excellent suggestions to consider, for example: ‘Bet on the people that think for themselves.’ This rang true in my experience too. As an emerging leader, you cannot be everywhere and make all the decisions; encouraging staff who think for themselves will pay you dividends in the long run. If you’re a more seasoned leader, you will recognise the importance of reflection.
3. What did you think about the quality of the writing? Please consider the tone, structure and ideas. Does it suit the audience?
'Change frightens workers, and their fears thrive in silence.' The tone is informative and reflective, though at times authoritarian. As a British reader, you have to accept the military undertones, given Captain Abrashoff is a patriotic American who is putting his life on the line.
The ideas, while not directly written about schools, are readily applicable to most leadership settings. For example, he advises leaders to, ‘See the ship through the crew’s eyes.’ It never hurts – as school, curriculum or pastoral leaders – to see the school through the staff’s eyes. Leaders need to think about how a teacher on a full timetable – running a club, duties, parents meetings, positive phone calls etc – will be affected by their decisions.
4. Please discuss the research used to underpin the ideas. What evidence does the author use? Is it robust and up-to-date?
Abrashoff presents leadership through experience. As the book isn’t directly related to schools, anyone looking for education research to inform their leadership will be disappointed – but the lessons, ideas and insights from such an alternative context are interesting.
5. What did you learn from reading the book? What ideas/approaches/practice will you change or adopt as a result of reading this book?
The leadership takeaways fall into two categories (leadership and management). Abrashoff shares his experiences of stepping up into leadership, leading up and directing down, empowering and ethical dilemmas.
One management issue that Abrashoff features, and which is relevant to education, is the retention and development of staff. Staff retention was as low as 20% on USS Benfold when he took post and under his command it improved to being the best retained crew in the fleet. You get the sense that he invested in his crew at all levels. Given the military context, working under life-death conditions, it is interesting to read that he encouraged staff to speak up and question decisions.
Abrashoff shares significant commentary on the empowerment of staff. He is very clear: no leader can achieve success on his or her own and must empower others, whatever their position. He says, for example, ‘talent knows no rank’, ‘good ideas are where you find them’ and advises against ‘pitting dog against dog’.
He writes that his ‘crew was authorized to make their own decisions. Even if the decisions were wrong, I would stand by them. Hopefully, they would learn from their mistakes. And the more responsibility they were given, the more they learned.’
I have been trying to make sure I do this as a leader. I know that in providing our staff greater autonomy, there have been mistakes, however six months on, I am confident that more staff are making more and better decisions (which means fewer emails too). We have seen a handful of small projects initiated within and between departments, with senior staff asking for solutions, not just questions.
There was also an interesting section on how Abrashoff manages himself. Having pointed out that ‘optimism and pessimism are equally infectious’, he outlined how he minimised his impact on his ‘dark days’. All leaders on our team have, at some points, shared a low point and tried to minimise their impact. We work together to step in, or step up, if a colleague is not on their A-game. In fact we have a poster on our window that encourages self-management.
6. Could you share a quote from the book that particularly resonated with you?
'If they see you give up on someone, they understand instantly that there’s no room for redemption in this outfit, and they could be next to go. If they see you intervene to help someone who is worth your effort, they will be reassured. Though the process is tedious and time-consuming, you will benefit if people feel more secure, are more willing to take risks, and have a positive attitude about the organization.'