5 Things You Need to Know From the Keynote Speakers at Centurion 2013

Centurion show keynote speakers—retired Navy officer Mike Abrashoff and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s—urged attendees to forge a path of success with the tools and talents available to them instead of blaming circumstances.

Abrashoff, author of It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques From the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, spoke to attendees about his own unique turnaround experience with the U.S.S. Benfold, an unkempt ship with low morale. Greenfield dished on how two seemingly unambitious hippie friends turned their passion for food into an ice cream empire with an emphasis on corporate responsibility.

Here’s a quick list of inspirational bits from the talks.

Take Charge of What You Can. When Abrashoff was appointed commander of the U.S.S. Benfold—a ship stationed in the South Pacific that was notorious for low morale and unhappy sailors—he felt he wasn’t “smart enough” to turn the ship around. But despite all the elements out of his control, he could control his attitude and influence over staff.

“I told myself that I would stop being a victim and start obsessing over things that I could influence: getting the sailors to take greater accountability for themselves,” he said.

Through personal outreach and out-of-the-box thinking (e.g., jazz nights on deck with Cuban cigars), Abrashoff instilled confidence and pride in his crew and turned the ship into a model of excellence for others to emulate.

Give Employees Ownership. Abrashoff told his men that they had as much ownership in the ship as he did, dramatically reversing the ship’s employee retention rate.

“I said, ‘Spend money on this ship like it’s coming out of your own pocket,’” Abrashoff told jewelers.

He encouraged sailors to brainstorm cost-cutting and day-to-day, life-improving suggestions, like swapping out non-ferrous metal components on ships for stainless steel ones, dramatically reducing the number of times ships needed to be repainted. By encouraging staff to take greater ownership of resources—and helping them to achieve their own goals such as college preparation skills—they helped Abrashoff achieve his.

“It was a process of getting the crew to believe that they had a stake in our successful outcome,” he explained. “I decided to change that top-down command and get the crew to understand that it was not just in my best interests for ship to change, in was in theirs, too.”

Lead by Example. Because Abrashoff removed all “sacred cows” on his ship, he knew he couldn’t ask the crew to change unless he was “out in front modeling that behavior,” he said. And while he couldn’t give raises or bonuses, he could give validation—liberally.

“I looked for sailors who were doing something great, and thanked them for going the extra mile,” said Abrashoff. “Many never had a role model or a pat on the back.”

Ben & Jerry’s founders, Greenfield and Ben Cohen, led their ice cream business in the same way. By linking the prosperity of the business to the common worker through profit sharing and compressed salary structures for executive management, the pair upheld corporate and social responsibility principles that were fundamental to their core beliefs while the company was under their direct control.

Persistence Pays Off. Greenfield told jewelers that hard work and persistence are the ultimate keys to success. For example, while Greenfield and Cohen excelled at mediocre life moves—Cohen was a college dropout and Greenfield was rejected from multiple medical schools—steady but slow moves (and sometimes nonsensical, like opening an ice cream shop in Vermont) ultimately led them to positions in which they excelled.

“We couldn’t find a warm, rural college town without ice cream parlors so we opened one in a place where we didn’t have any competition because we didn’t know what we were doing,” deadpanned Greenfield.

Steadfast Good Intentions Can Inspire & Pave a Pathway to Success. Since Cohen and Greenfield were children of the 1960s and the idea of a corporation had negative connotations, the pair almost decided to close their growing ice cream business early on. That was, until a friend suggested that they could run their business any way they wanted to.

“He pointed out to us that if we wanted to grow our business, we could do it in way that supports our values,” recollected Greenfield.

So the pair unearthed an obscure Vermont law that would allow them to raise capital not through a venture capitalist, but rather through an initial public offering in the state of Vermont, where shareholders would be the residents who helped to build the homegrown business. The unusual idea worked, and, in a decidedly Ben & Jerry’s fashion, the pair grew the business while raising money for a foundation that aided requests to fight hunger, help kids, and more.

“We learned that there is a spiritual aspect to business, that as you give you receive, and as you help others you are helped,” he added.