Blog Feature
Tony D'Amelio

By: Tony D'Amelio on June 12th, 2018

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Change Agenda: What to do first? A Navy Captain's surprising answer.

Managing/Leading Change | Organizational Culture

Imagine this: you've just taken command of the near-worst performing ship in the U.S. Navy. Your job is to try and turn things around - something others before you have tried and failed to do.

Where do you start?  What's the first thing you'd do?

That’s was the intriguing question that was posed to MIKE ABRASHOFF during the Q&A session last month. Mike is the former Navy captain who came to the world’s attention in a Fast Company magazine cover story. The magazine heard that he’d taken command of a poorly-performing performing ship in the Navy and transformed it in just about a year's time into the best ship in the fleetusing the same crew. That’s some organizational transformation and the magazine wanted to know how he did it. 

How did Mike take the USS Benfold, a ship that had 92% turnover in crew, an abysmal accident rate, and rock-bottom morale, and turn it into the model of efficiency and performance for the entire Navy - its practices and ideas rolled out to the entire fleet?

You know the outcome; but where did Mike start? What was his priority? That’s what the questioner asked at Mike’s talk in Greenwich, Conn. I’ve seen Mike speak in person over a hundred times since 2002, but this question never came up and the answer surprised me, as it might you.

Mike explained that his parents had come on board on his first day in command and had dinner in his cabin. “The food was horrible,” Mike said, “and I thought to myself if they’re giving this to the captain – what is the crew eating?”

The next day Mike went down to eat with the crew. Sure enough, the food was worse than the awful meal that was served to him and his parents

Mike made it his first priority to give the mess crew the kind of training, support, and attention they had never received. He said chances are people in the mess halls were recruited last day of the month – just so recruiters could make their numbers. The idea was, if you had no skills, they’d have you work in the kitchen. That wasn’t helping things.

With a serious focus on turning things in the kitchen around, the food improved, and more important, the morale on the ship improved, too. The crew saw their new captain as caring about them just as much as the jobs they needed to do.


Mike always makes clear that his crew was responsible for the stunning turnaround on the USS Benfold. "My focus was on the one thing I could affect - the culture on the ship.  I can tell people what to do but I can't order excellence. For that to happen, the crew needs to feel like the captain has their backs."

The amazing transformation of the USS Benfold into the best ship in the Navy is the subject of Mike's million-copy bestselling first book It’s Your Ship. The story has also been covered by  top management and leadership journals, including The Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review. 

And to think that the celebrated transformation began with a simple act: Mike improved the food. It makes the point that sometimes we spend time working on the wrong things.


MIKE ABRASHOFF is at the center of the most remarkable of organizational turnaround stories. The transformation of the USS Benfold has been the focus of feature articles on leadership in Fast Company magazine, Harvard Business Review, and other publications. The attention led corporations and associations to request Mike for speeches – he’s done nearly 2,000 talks to top organizations since 2002. He is one of the top leadership speakers in the world and author of three books – his first, It’s Your Ship, has sold over 1 million copies. Check out videos of Mike Abrashoff speaking to business audiences on leadership, culture, innovation and managing change in organizations here.

For more information on Mike’s speaking activities, contact Tony D’Amelio at D’Amelio Network –


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About Tony D'Amelio

Tony has spent his career putting talented people and audiences together, first in the music business and later representing the world's leading speakers. After concluding 27 years as Executive Vice President of the Washington Speakers Bureau, Tony launched D'Amelio Network, a boutique firm that manages the speaking activities of a select group of experts on business, management, politics and current events. Clients include: Mike Abrashoff, Geoff Colvin, Katty Kay, Polly LaBarre, Nicole Malachowski, David Meerman Scott, Bill Taylor, Bill Walton, and Bob Woodward.

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