Welcome to episode one of Veteran Led. In this episode, host John Berry talks about being a new, inexperienced 2nd Lieutenant, and how his noncommissioned officers trained and mentored him to become the leader he is today.
John discusses the challenges he faced when transitioning into the civilian business world. It wasn’t until his commander reminded him of the military’s crawl, walk, run methodology that he realized how to adapt it as “survive, thrive, dominate” in business .
Once he realized how valuable his military experience was, he applied it to his civilian career, transforming his small organization into an eight-figure business.
Welcome, fellow veterans. From the tip of the spear to in the rear with the gear, I went from active-duty Infantry to reserve-component logistician. I’m your host, CEO, entrepreneur, trial lawyer and Lieutenant Colonel Retired, John Berry.
The military lessons that I learned helped me grow an eight-figure business that has maintained consistent annual double-digit growth, landing on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing companies in America every year for the past seven years and has allowed me to continue to serve America’s heroes.
In this episode of Veteran Led, the first episode, I’m going to briefly touch on my origin story and why Veteran Led is important to me. I’m going to talk about being a new second lieutenant, knowing nothing, having no real skills, relying on my noncommissioned officers to mentor me and train me, and how when I went to the civilian business world, at first, I failed to realize the value of that experience and that training but more importantly, I failed to implement it. But once I understood how valuable my military experience was, I found that I could be a leader as a civilian as well. And I hope that sharing this experience will give you some insight into how your post-military career can be even better than your military career.
Just before 0530 I sprinted toward the company area, Alpha Company, 1-5 CAV, 1st Cavalry Division, the grim reapers. My noncommissioned officers were all there, coffee cup in hand, waiting for the first formation, discussing plans for the day, waiting for the butter bar lieutenant. Most of my noncommissioned officers were Desert Storm veterans and I was a new infantry lieutenant who was supposed to lead them on a deployment in a few months. They wanted to know what I had, and they were going to smoke me during PT, they were going to watch me lead battle drills, heckle me, critique me, and hopefully advise and mentor me. And I knew what was coming, and I was scared, not scared that I couldn’t do it, or scared that I was completely incompetent, although I probably was about as useless as what toilet paper to them, I was scared I was gonna let them down.
I was scared because they needed a leader who could make them even better leaders. And all I was with some kid out of college with commission. What can I bring to them? If you ever felt this fear, this is natural for a leader. This is exactly what leaders should feel. And the military does a great job. You think about civilian roles and there’s these technicians that have 20-30 years of experience and by default, they’re placed in a leadership position and yet they have no leadership bone in their body, and they never should be in that position. And those of you that have left the military and been in the civilian world, you know exactly what I’m talking about. But in the military, it’s different. We put young people with leadership ability in charge of people with exponentially more leadership ability and exponentially more experience and knowledge. And why do we do that? Because that’s what’s necessary to develop leaders.
And if you’ve ever been an officer, noncommissioned officer, or even enlisted soldier and you’ve met that E6 That is a god in the organization because he is omniscient, omnipotent, he can do everything and he takes charge of everything. You know exactly what I’m talking about. My fears came not from my insecurities about who I was, we all have insecurities, but it came from my grave respect and admiration for the nation’s heroes that I was going to lead.
So, if you’ve ever had a successful team, an organization, a company, you remember the terror, you remember the crushing burden, the self-doubt, and the pride of leading a great team. While at the time I dreaded my existence as an inexperienced, incompetent, brand-new leader, I spent the last 25 years of my life trying to get back to that feeling; not incompetence, but of leading a great team, a team of individuals who are better than me, a team that I’m excited to lead every morning. I can remember every morning showing up at formation and I couldn’t wait to be there just to be around this great group of leaders. My infantry platoon was the best platoon in the battalion. And they knew it. And it wasn’t just because they were saying it, they wanted to prove it every single day. I spent my military career trying to gain the trust and respect of my sergeants. I was inspired, mystified and fearful of their leadership. To many of us, sergeants are the superheroes in the military, and they teach us through this flawless methodology of crawl, walk, run. They are consummate professionals, and they develop professionals. As we say, officers plan but NCOs execute, or sergeants execute.
I had that great experience in the military. And then I went to law school, started running the family business and I struggled for years as a civilian. There were times when I didn’t know if there’s enough cash in the bank to make payroll. Other times we either lost or terminated a key employee or we scrambled to keep the business running because we had to restructure everything. And we always had to meet our obligations to our clients. As a leader, I felt inadequate because I didn’t take those lessons with me. The great, great failure was that I had all the lessons. My noncommissioned officers taught me how to lead and yet I was struggling.
So, I went out like most of us do and tried to find experts, gurus, I went to business “boot camps”, and the deficit in all those organizations, lies in the number of qualified leaders willing to tell you the truth about what it takes to lead a great team, year in and year out. Now, as I said before, the Army specifically separates leadership from subject matter expertise. And I couldn’t comprehend that until during one drill weekend, when I came off active duty I stayed in Nebraska National Guard, and I had a great commander who would check in with me and see how I was doing now.
These are my favorite types of commanders that give me latitude, say, “John, here’s the mission, go do it.” And then don’t bother me. But this commander was checking in, seeing how I was doing. I said, “Well, I’m tired. I got a lot going on. I feel like I’m failing. I feel like there’s all these things going on that I’m just not doing right, and that I don’t know how to do it.” He just looked at me and said, “John, you know how to do it. You were an infantry officer. It’s no different in the civilian world. Leadership is leadership.” He said, “Remember, crawl, walk, run? In business, it’s survive, thrive, dominate.” I said, “Well, what do you mean?” He said, “Well, you have to learn how to survive as an individual, just like you did in your basic officer course or basic training or bootcamp. Once you know how to survive, then you need to thrive as a team, build that team. You’ve done that, you’ve had that opportunity. Finally, you need to look at big Army to see how it dominates. To see how larger organizations do really well.” I said, “Yeah, we always thought big Army was dumb.” He said, “It may appear that way, but it’s not. If you look at the logistical power, the firepower, and the ability to move quickly, deploy quickly, it’s brilliant. And big Army can teach you a lot about how to run an organization.” I sat back and I thought, wow, this commander might be right. And I worked through problems, and I found that a lot of the problems were people problems, leadership problems. I was tolerating things that I didn’t need to tolerate; things I never would have tolerated as an infantry officer. I was allowing people to show up late, substandard performance. And I was just letting it happen because I didn’t know any better. I just assumed that this is the way the civilian world worked, but it doesn’t have to work that way.
And that’s what this veteran lead podcast is all about. You have the ability to continue to lead, to build even better teams. Just because you got your DD 214 and you’re no longer in the service, doesn’t mean you can’t build a great organization. It doesn’t mean you can’t have an even better and bigger career than you had in the military. The skills that you learned; the leadership skills, the management skills are completely relevant to your success as a civilian. And that is the point of the Veteran Led podcast. I want to share the lessons I learned that took us from a small organization to hitting the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest growing companies in America seven years in a row. We did this through leadership, through building teams. And the secret? I hired military leaders. I built the staff just like the staff that you probably saw at the battalion level where I had an Operations Officer, I had an Intel guy who was marketing, I had an S6 who was my COMMO guy who took care of the internet, the phones, everything else. But I built the staff, and I let the staff run and we grew, and we grew, and we grew. And we hired for leadership ability. And so when I would hire a technician, a lawyer, I would look at, is this person good at what they do? But more importantly, can this scale by putting them in a leadership position where they can make five more of them? One of my greatest lawyers on my team, I asked her I said, “Do you know anybody else who has your level of talent?” And she named some people, and I tried to hire all of them. And I said, “Now, how do I get more of you? I’ve hired your peers, the people that you told me were great, that were just like you, how do I get more of you?” And she said, “You need to make more.” And so, I worked with her to train more leaders. And that is how you scale. Leadership scales exponentially, but you have to commit to building the team, commit to educating your team, training your team, to arming your team with the best technology and equipment. You have to commit to giving them a bigger, better future. If you do that, you’re gonna have the same success that you had in the military. And think about that. Think about your success in the military. I can talk all day about officers, noncommissioned officers, who understood what it took to move through the ranks and apply that to the civilian world. You’re always building that next skill. You’re always moving to the next level. If you stop moving up, then you’re not really leading. And I always say, look, if you’re not growing with us, you’re not going with us because we’re going to the next level and we’re going to do what it takes. It’s just like the military, right? If you want to be a sergeant, a noncommissioned officer, you gotta meet some requirements. You don’t just show up one day and you’re a sergeant, and it takes years of development. Same thing from going from a lieutenant to a captain. What’s your job as a Lieutenant? As a platoon leader? It is to learn to be a company commander. It is to learn to get to the next level and as a leader of any organization, you also have to look at how you get to the next level.
So look, it’s no different than the military. Your job is to make sure you have the education, training, and experience to get the next promotion, to get to the next level, and to ensure that your subordinates have the same experience and training and opportunities to get to the next level. It really is no different. And that’s what we’re going to talk about in the Veteran Led podcast.
This is the AAR, the After Action Review. Some of you may remember in the After Action Review, you generally talk about the mission, what was supposed to happen, what actually happened, and then three sustains and three improves.
We’ll talk a little bit about the sustains. Number one, you learned what you needed to know about leadership from the military. Leadership is leadership. Number two, leaders should be scared. The burden of command is heavy. Number three, you don’t need to be a technical expert to lead a team or to build one.
Now, the three downs, the things that I screwed up. Control what you can control. You can control your attitude, your appearance, your work ethic, your level of physical fitness, but you can’t control everything, so don’t worry about it. Number two, realize that leaders solve problems. There are no shortage of problems, which means there are no shortage of leadership opportunities even if you’re a second lieutenant that knows nothing. Finally, maintain confidence. You will always be a second lieutenant in some organization or some aspect of your life. If you’re not a new second lieutenant, you’re not learning.
Please take these lessons and go out and be a hero to another veteran. Share with them, mentor them, teach them the lessons you learned and most importantly, teach them how to transfer those leadership skills to their civilian or community endeavors.
Thank you for joining us today on Veteran Led, where we pursue our mission of promoting veteran leadership in business, strengthening the veteran community, and getting veterans all of the benefits that they earned. If you know a leader who should be on the Veteran Led podcast, report to our online community by searching @veteranled on your favorite social channels and posting in the comments. We want to hear how your military challenges prepared you to lead your industry or community, and we will let the world know. And of course, hit subscribe and join me next time on Veteran Led.
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