MIKE ABRASHOFF: Workplace Safety Is No Accident
MIKE ABRASHOFF was the most junior officer in the Pacific Fleet when he took command of the near-worst performing ship. Twelve months later, the USS Benfold was the best ship in the entire Navy – using the same crew. The story of that stunning transformation has lessons for every organization: leadership matters – and culture is everything.
Mike is clear, “I didn’t turn the ship around – my crew did that. What I did was to create an environment where they felt safe, empowered, and supported. When you do that, anything is possible.”
“When my crew came to me with a problem, I’d say ‘It’s your ship – how would you fix it?’.” Mike focused on the one thing he could influence: his crew’s attitude because culture is the ultimate competitive weapon for any organization.
SPEAKING OF WORKPLACE SAFETY
MIKE ABRASHOFF is well known for speaking on topics of leadership, organizational culture, and employee engagement – but he also is an internationally-known expert on safety. Mike is one of the few people to ever keynote twice at the National Safety Council annual convention.
Safety on a ship is a top priority. Accidents at sea can have terrible consequences. But when Mike took over the Benfold, the ship’s safety record was abysmal. As captain, he was committed to the safety of his crew and set about the task of reducing the number of accidents to zero.
Under Mike’s command, his ship, the USS Benfold, earned the topic safety record in the Navy. The lessons Mike learned in transforming the ship’s performance are the bedrock of what he teaches in his presentations.
“Everyone has been raving about your inspiring and motivating presentation. You were the perfect individual to kick off our conference. Your message is exactly what our conference participants needed and wanted to hear.”
–Texas School Safety Conference
MEASURING THE SUCCESS OF MIKE’S SAFETY MESSAGE
Best of all, groups that engage Mike credit his talk for delivering measurable improvement in safety. Here’s a recent example.
In March, 2023 Mike traveled to Europe for a petroleum drilling and exploration company that had been experiencing a dramatic increase in safety incidents. Indeed, while Mike was onsite, there was an over-pressurization of the blowout preventer which was similar to the catastrophic BP Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico a decade ago.
Mike conferred with leaders and quickly offered an assessment: The issue was entirely the result of human factors and not technology or equipment related. Three months later the company sent Mike the results of his visit: There has not been one safety-related incident since his visit. Below is the summary from the executive in charge:
“YOU CAN’T ORDER SAFETY,” MIKE ABRASHOFF
“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 U.S. 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 Mike took command of the ship, one of his sailors was involved in a DUI off base after going to a bar after work. The very night he took command of the ship, one of his sailors was severely beaten in a mugging because he walked out the wrong gate of the base after sunset into 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,” said Mike. “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 Mike throughout his entire tenure was that he never wanted to write the parents of any of his sailors to 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,” Mike said, “I assumed my sailors wanted to be safe and so everything I looked at was whether our processes facilitated a safe culture.”
THE ACTION PLAN: MAKIN SAFETY A PRIORITY
Mike implemented a program whereby every week, he would focus on one of the 24 divisions. He would inspect their workspaces for safety and other hazards. He would observe sailors doing their maintenance and quiz them on the safety precautions. He 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,” said Mike. “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).”
MAKING SAFETY EVERYONE’S JOB PAYS OFF
On Mike’s ship, any sailor could stop any process if they thought safety was being impaired. Any sailor had a direct line to Mike if they thought their chain of command wasn't sufficiently concerned or didn't see what they were seeing. Every sailor knew that Mike felt their safety was a top priority of mine and not just lip service.
The result – Mike’s last year in command, there were two minor incidents; down from 31 incidents two years prior. Was Mike satisfied? “No!!! Two is two too many,” says Mike. “But we never missed an opportunity to try and drive that culture of excellence and safety. They go hand in hand.”
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, Vernice "FlyGirl" Armour, Chris Barton, Geoff Colvin, Daryl Davis, Suneel Gupta, Ron Insana, Katty Kay, Polly LaBarre, Nicole Malachowski, Ken Schmidt, Mark Schulman, Bill Walton, and Bob Woodward.