Engage All Employees for Sustainable Change

by Edward Henkler on June 25, 2013

Most leaders tend to have a few go-to employees, often rising stars, who get assigned every emerging challenge (or is that opportunity).  It’s a comfortable approach for the leader and can create growth opportunities for the “chosen”.  Unfortunately, it may also severely burden the “chosen” and is very disengaging for everyone else.  Sustainable change occurs when employees at all levels are engaged, with meaningful assignments which stretch them and often uncover innovative ideas.

D. Michael Abrashoff wrote a marvelous leadership tale, “It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy.”  When he assumed command of the USS Benfold, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, he had the privilege of commanding one of the most technologically advanced ships in the US Navy.  Unfortunately, in spite of a capable crew, only a fraction of the technology was being employed.  In mere months, he was able to create a culture of “it’s your ship”, with everyone feeling personal responsibility for increasing the effectiveness of their station and their ship.

Engage all of your employees to create pervasive, sustainable change.

Engage all of your employees to create pervasive, sustainable change.

How did he do it?  The story of how he prepared for a fleet-wide submarine detection exercise is a great way to understand his technique.  The other ship captains assembled their senior officers to develop a strategy in the time-honored tradition of the Navy.  Captain Abrashoff broke tradition by engaging the enlisted personnel who were responsible for operating the sonar.  Rather than employing strategic engagement principles, they provided input on how to best employ the sonar’s detection capabilities, including a consideration of how their ship should be maneuvered.  In the end, the USS Benfold won the exercise by engaging everyone, not just the “chosen”.

Problems are best solved by the people who routinely manage the associated activities.  This is not intended to disparage the “chosen”, only to suggest that while they have a role, they aren’t the only ones who can contribute.  As you engage more and more of your employees, innovation can become the norm.  A chain is only as good as the weakest link….strengthen all of them!

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