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Mike Abrashoff

Team member engagement, organizational transformation and exceptional leadership.

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Mike Abrashoff: Team member engagement, organizational transformation and exceptional leadership.

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Mike Abrashoff Former Commander, USS Benfold and Author, It’s Your Ship

At the age of 36, the Navy selected Mike Abrashoff to become Commander of USS Benfold – at the time, the most junior commanding officer in the Pacific Fleet. The immediate challenges that faced him on this underperforming Naval war ship were staggering: exceptionally low morale, high turnover and unacceptably low performance evaluations. Few thought that this ship could improve. In many ways, the USS Benfold was actually an extreme example of the same problems facing many organizations today.

The solution was to establish a system of management techniques that Mike Abrashoff calls The Leadership Roadmap. At the core of his leadership approach on Benfold was a process of replacing command and control with commitment and cohesion, and by engaging the hearts, minds, and loyalties of workers – with conviction and humility. “The most important thing that a captain can do is to see the ship through the eyes of the crew.” According to Abrashoff, The Leadership Roadmap is a practice that empowers every individual to share the responsibility of achieving excellence. “It’s your ship,” he was known to say. His former sailors to this day still remind him of it.

By every measure, these principles were able to achieve breakthrough results. Personnel turnover decreased to an unprecedented 1 percent. The rate of military promotions tripled, and the crew slashed operating expenses by 25 percent. Regarded as the finest ship in the Pacific Fleet, Benfold won the prestigious Spokane Trophy for having the highest degree of combat readiness. Most important – this transformation took place with the same crew. What had changed was the ship’s culture and Abrashoff’s leadership style.

Mike Abrashoff recounted the leadership lessons from the turnaround of USS Benfold in It’s Your Ship, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller, with over 800,000 copies sold to date. This extraordinary interest in Abrashoff’s leadership journey and Benfold’s organizational lessons led to two follow-up books – Get Your Ship Together and It’s Our Ship. Those books took readers deeper into ways these principles have been put into action by business leaders in their own organizations.

Prior to commanding USS Benfold, Abrashoff served as the Military Assistant to Secretary of Defense William J. Perry. He also helped draft the air defense plan for naval forces in the Persian Gulf in 1990, coinciding with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait; and served as the Executive Officer of the Cruiser Shiloh, where he deployed to the Persian Gulf in support of United Nations sanctions against Iraq.

Mike Abrashoff is the founder of GLS Worldwide, a consulting firm which works with and supports leaders as they address leadership, talent and business challenges within their organization. The firm challenges leaders at all levels to re-imagine their leadership thinking and create new ways to elevate individual, team and organizational performance.
Sometimes in our professional lives we believe we are in a battle to beat an adversary or a competitor when in actuality, we are in competition with ourselves but just haven't figured it out yet. When battling the competition, you want to come out on top, if only by one more sale or maybe a few percentage points. Sometimes, someone at a higher level gives you a goal based on some median expectation set for others. When Mike Abrashoff took command of a well below-average ship in the U.S. Navy, his goal was to get to average. He initially set average goals and expectations for himself and his crew until one day it struck him: his ship could be better than average.  Mike's eureka moment was realizing they weren't in competition with anyone but themselves to be their best. They had to stop putting limits on what they believed was possible. That realization changed Mike Abrashoff's approach to leadership and led the same crew to accomplish one of the most remarkable turnarounds that was chronicled in the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company magazine and his New York Times' and Wall Street Journal bestselling book, IT'S YOUR SHIP.  Many of Mike's former crew members have gone on to accomplish great things in their careers.  They write to tell him their stories.  One of Mike's sailors just ran for city council of one of the largest cities in the U.S. and he wrote Mike to say, "you gave us the inspiration and confidence to know that there are no limits." This presentation will challenge you to think differently on how to set expectations while realizing the only limits that you have are self-impose


When Mike Abrashoff took command of the USS Benfold, morale was low, turnover was high and performance ranked at the bottom of the Pacific Fleet. Twelve months later the ship was the benchmark for performance – the shining star … using the very same crew. This inspiring talk is based on the vital leadership lessons Abrashoff learned as he led the remarkable turnaround of the ship. The first lesson was Abrashoff’s realization that before the ship’s performance could improve, his own leadership style had to change from the traditional command and control model. When the crew would present a problem, Abrashoff became known for responding “What would YOU do? It’s YOUR ship!” His Leadership Roadmap principles created a high performance culture and empowered his crew to take charge and use ingenuity and initiative to improve every aspect of the way things were done. Abrashoff’s presentation leaves audiences with the tools and inspiration to lead differently and elevate organizational performance to new levels.

For organizations that want to get serious about improving performance, this presentation delivers examples of the Leadership Roadmap in action. Abrashoff brings to life stories of how the principles that led the transformation of the USS Benfold have been put into action at companies and organizations looking to harness the power of their most important asset – their people. He shows real leaders achieving dramatic results as they work to address their most pressing people challenges: collaboration, commitment, cohesion, accountability, engagement, rapid and continual innovation and diversity in the workforce. In example after example, the lessons from the Benfold clearly translate across all kinds of organizations – corporations, small business, non-profits and government. Abrashoff shows audiences, by example, how to use their new leadership toolkit. “It’s Our Ship” goes deep into the how-tos of creating a culture where everyone takes ownership and responsibility for taking performance to the next level.

Meant to deepen the learning from Mike Abrashoff’s keynote talk, Take Action sessions provide attendees with additional powerful tools and strategies to apply in their work environment. Facilitated by a senior strategist from Abrashoff’s firm, GLS Worldwide, and taking place immediately following the keynote, Take Action sessions create an exciting atmosphere that examines the key components of high performing leaders, teams and organizations. Participants will experience innovative, fast-paced individual and group exercises tailored to the leadership and cultural issues most relevant to the organization. They’ll learn practical application of principles outlined in the keynote and build a roadmap to achieve the personal and organizational goals they’ve outlined. Take Action sessions are customizable to meet time and resource-sensitive needs and require a minimum of 2 hours.


The focus of our foundational leadership development program is on learning "how" to apply the lessons and best practices modeled in Mike's books. In this keynote, the success story of USS Benfold creates a powerful example of what is possible and the impact leaders can have on results. The lessons learned aboard USS Benfold combined with the best practices that we have found in studying high performance leaders have been distilled into five simple milestones, what we call, "The Leadership Roadmap." The Roadmap is practical and simple at heart, and works because it focuses on how leaders get results, not just what leaders aspire to become.

Breakout Sessions
Many clients choose to follow Mike's keynote with a breakout session, we call them "Take Action" sessions since they are high energy, interactive, fast paced set of exercises and discussions tailored to the leadership and cultural issues most relevant to your organization. These follow-on group meetings are a great opportunity to deepen the learning from Mike's keynote with additional tools and strategies to apply in your work environment. The breakout sessions are customizable based upon your needs and focus.

Safety is No Accident
One of the critical issues facing organizations today is safety… not just safety in the workplace but safety in all facets of our personal lives. After all, if people get injured at home, it affects their on-the-job performance, as well as medical costs.

No matter how hard we may try, you can’t order safety. It’s a culture we have to create and each person has to feel it personally. A US Navy destroyer is an inherently dangerous place and no Captain, no matter how good he or she thinks they are, can order safety. In the year prior to taking command of USS Benfold, 31 sailors out of a workforce of 310 were involved in some type of injury producing mishap. The first afternoon after I took command of the ship, one of my sailors was involved in a DUI off base after going to a bar after work. The very night I took command of the ship, one of my sailors was severely beaten in a mugging because he walked out the wrong gate of the base after sunset in one of the worst parts of town. It was a newly reporting sailor who didn’t know that you don’t go to that part of town after sunset. That fact wasn’t included in our welcome aboard program for newly reporting personnel.

Are all of these connected? Absolutely!!! It speaks to the culture that we try to create. You can never have a great organization if your top priority is not the safety of your people. The one thing that drove me throughout my entire tenure was that I never wanted to write the parents of any of my sailors and tell them that their son or daughter wasn’t coming home because of something we did or something we failed to do. When I looked at safety on the ship, I assumed my sailors wanted to be safe and so everything I looked at was whether our processes facilitated a safe culture.

We implemented a program whereby every week, I would focus on one of the 24 divisions. I would inspect their work spaces for safety and other hazards. I would observe sailors doing their maintenance and quizzing them on the safety precautions. I reviewed their safety training program and participated in seminars with them. During these events they could ask questions about anything they weren’t sure about. I wanted them to understand that the concept of safety was portable to their families and personal lives, as well. We trained on the dangers of drinking and driving and if they were drinking, they could call a local cab company to give them a free ride home which was then paid for out of our morale fund (and not taxpayers money). By the way, we also tried to create a culture of respect whereby sailors didn’t have to go home after work and blow off steam and drink to excess.

Any sailor could stop any process if they thought safety was being impaired. Any sailor had a direct line to me if they thought their chain of command wasn’t sufficiently concerned or didn’t see what they were seeing. Every sailor knew that I felt their safety was a top priority of mine and not just lip service.

The result? My last year in command, there were two minor incidents; down from 31 incidents two years prior. Was I satisfied? No!!! Two is two too many. But we never missed an opportunity to try and drive that culture of excellence and safety. They go hand in hand.
“Your insightful leadership guided us through a thorough, engaging and thoughtful examination of our current “state of the union” as well as our visions and expectations for the future.  We have been inspired by your call for collaboration and are excited to bring your teachings forward with us into the future.”  
-- CEO, Ohio Presbyterian Retirement Services

“You gave a memorable and enjoyable keynote speech that was enjoyed by all. Thank you for making our owners understand that they are the captains of their own destiny and that they need to take all action needed to succeed.  You did a great job setting the tone for the rest of the convention.”
-- CEO, Wireless Zone

“We have never had such positive feedback so you very much exceeded our expectations.  You were quoted numerous times throughout the remainder of the conference which says people took your message to heart and will put it to work in their everyday jobs – exactly what we aimed for!” 
-- Director of Staffing, Employee Relations & Development, Denbury Resources

“The "day after" is over and the impact is reverberating throughout the organization.  The feedback was clear -- your presentation ranked #1 for most valuable . . . count me a fan.”
– Head of Marketing and Corporate Affairs, North America, Nokia Siemens Networks
A.M. Best Company
Abbott Vascular
Advance Auto Parts
AMC Entertainment Holdings, Inc.
American Medical Systems Holdings, Inc. (AMS)
Anchorage Capital Group
Apartment Association of Metro Denver
Arthur J Gallagher
ASIS International
Associated Food Stores University
Association of KFC Franchisees
Atlantic Health
Baylor Health Care System
Beckman Coulter, Inc
Best Buy
Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals
California Bankers Association
Capital One
Carlson Restaurants Worldwide
CCC Information Services
Chesapeake Energy Corporation
CIBA Vision Corporation
Cincinnati Insurance Company
Clark Construction Group, LLC
CNA National Warranty Corporation
Deloitte Services LP
DENTSPLY North America LLC
Depend LTD
Dollar General Corporation
Drug Enforcement Administration
Duane Reade Drugstores
East Tennessee State University
Eli Lilly
e-Republic Inc.
Ernst & Young LLP
ev3, Inc.
Exxon Mobil
Fannie Mae
Fidelity Investments
Financial Network Investment Corporation
Florida Association of Homes for the Aging
Franchise Times
Fresenius Medical Services
FSC Securities
Janssen Supply Group, A Subsidiary of J&J
Johnson & Johnson
Kaiser Permanente
Kennametal, Inc.
Kentucky Fried Chicken
Kiewit Power Engineers
KVAT Food Stores, Inc.
Laramar Group
LPS Asset Management Group
MassMutual Retirement Services
McKesson Corporation
MFS Fund Distributors, Inc.
Morgan Stanley Smith Barney
Mr. Lube
Munich Reinsurance America, Inc.
MV Transportation
National Association of Personal Financial Advisors
National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation (CFC)
National Safety Council
National Sheriff’s Association
Nebraska Medical Center
New York Red Bulls
Novo Nordisk
O.C. Tanner Recognition Company
Oklahoma State Council for HR Management
Omnicare Inc.
Pacific Gas & Electric
Painters and Allied Trades Labor Management Cooperation Initiative (LMCI)
Panasonic Computer Solutions
Pfizer, Inc.
Philips Electronics
Pioneer Investment Management USA Inc.
PNC Financial Services Group, Inc.
Protective Life Insurance Company
Putnam Investments
PwC Management Services LP
Raymond James Financial Services
Rental Housing Association
RiverSource Distributors, Inc.
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.
Sanofi Aventis
Sava Senior Center
Schreiber Foods
Scott & White
Scottsdale Insurance Company
Sears Home Services
Serco Inc
SGS North America
Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics
Sonic Capital, LLC
Southwest Airlines
Spectrum Health
State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company
Stop & Shop
Stryker Spine
SunTrust Bank, Inc.
SV Life Science Advisers
Swett & Crawford Group
TD Bank Financial Group
Teachers’ Private Capital
The Cheesecake Factory, LLC
The Clorox Company
The Episcopal Church
The Governance Institute
The Mosaic Company
The Pantry, Inc.
The Scotts Company
The TriZetto Group, Inc.
Towers Watson
United Space Alliance
USAA People Services
Utah League of Cities and Towns
UTC Fire and Security
Veolia Environmental Services
Vera Bradley
VeriSign, Inc.
Verizon Wireless
Warnaco Inc.
Web Offset Association