Abrashoff: Focus your efforts on things you can influence


Michael Abrashoff: ‘Stop focusing on things you can’t influence and spend time focusing on things you can.’

Michael Abrashoff was faced with taking one of the worst-performing ships in the U.S. Navy and completely changing its culture with the same crew and no power over the budget. It is easy to compare that situation to similar dilemmas health care professionals face at their institutions, and on Saturday morning, Abrashoff explained how to tackle such a tough job.

“We are in industries that are constantly changing. At some point we need to step up to the plate and become better leaders to control our destiny,” said Abrashoff, a former captain in the U.S. Navy who spoke at the ANESTHESIOLOGY® 2015 Opening Session. “Stop focusing on things you can’t influence and spend time focusing on things you can.”

Employing an attitude of listening to his crew and looking for ways to improve processes, Abrashoff turned around the poor-performing USS Benfold so that it received the Spokane Trophy as the best ship in the U.S. Pacific fleet. Along the way, he improved the re-enlistment rate for his crew from 8 percent to almost 100 percent, compared with the average U.S. Navy re-enlistment rate of 32 percent.

One of the first things Abrashoff did after taking command of the Benfold was to talk — and listen — to every sailor on the ship about how they thought ship processes could be improved and also their goals in life.

“What I tried to do was connect with the crew and communicate to them that what we do is important,” Abrashoff said. “It gave me the opportunity to look into their eyes and say, ‘This is what we are about.’

“It is O.K. to come to work and challenge every aspect of your operation. By improving every process every day, in 15 months we went from the bottom to receive the Spokane Trophy.”

Those tactics did not work just on the Benfold. Abrashoff left the Navy to write a book about the turnaround of the ship, It’s Your Ship. Such books are considered a big success if they sell 10,000 copies, but 13 years later, It’s Your Ship has sold more than 1 million copies. How? Abrashoff convinced the manager of a Barnes and Noble bookstore to change her process.

The store usually sold 200 books a day and did not promote book signings. Through Abrashoff’s personal appearance and a guarantee to buy any leftover books, 200 copies of just It’s Your Ship were sold on one day. That doubling of sales caught the eye of Barnes and Noble executives, and soon store managers were told to recommend the book to anyone buying a book about improving business.

Earlier in his career, Abrashoff was one of 12 nominees for the post of military assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, William J. Perry, and was told he probably would not get the job. Abrashoff’s plan to get the job? He talked to Department of Defense staff members about their work, and they recommended him for the job because no one else had ever taken that approach.

“I wasn’t the smartest and I did not have the best record,” Abrashoff said, adding that Perry also listened to his staff. “He told me, ‘When I asked staff who they wanted to work with, they chose you.’

“William Perry taught me to lead. Was he charismatic? No. He led with a sense of humility — excellence without arrogance. He treated everyone the same — with respect and dignity.”

After moving from the Department of Defense to the Benfold, Abrashoff heeded Perry’s advice and listened to his crew.

“I viewed the operations though their eyes. I could see the crew start to change,” Abrashoff said. “There is no one to keep us from being the best except for ourselves.”

Abrashoff told attendees to take that same approach during the conference and when they return home. He also reminded them to always act as role models with their teams at work.

“With all of the changes going on in your industry, it is easy to feel hopeless,” he said. “To control your destiny, remember that the things we can influence can make a huge difference.”

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