Don’t let ego be the enemy of your personal growth. On this episode of Veteran Led, John Berry expresses the value that lies in feedback, and how to stop feelings from getting in the way of achieving goals. Drawing from his military experience, John describes how this lesson proved to be one of the most challenging leadership goals for him to learn. But not all feedback is equal! John will break down the importance of how feedback is packaged, and how it can both add, or diminish its reception and effectiveness.
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.
Welcome to Episode 19: Feedback is a Gift. Be ready and grateful to receive it.
Feedback is a gift. This was one of the hardest leadership lessons for me to learn. I think my ego got in the way a lot of times, I felt attacked, I felt like the work I did wasn’t appreciated, and it just took a long time for me to really just accept feedback for what it is. And of course, not all feedback is equal. The feedback that we get from the people who have climbed the mountain that we want to climb means a lot more than the person who’s never done it. And certainly when we perform to standard, getting feedback about how we perform can feel good, but the best feedback comes from when we fail to achieve that level of greatness that others expect from us. And so feedback really is a gift, but you have to be willing to accept it and see it as such.
Now, when you go back through your military career, you got tons of feedback, right? The After Action Reviews, the quarterly counseling, hopefully not too many negative counseling statements, the Officer Evaluation Reports, the Noncommissioned Officer Evaluation Reports. There’s all this structure for feedback, but one of the best commanders I had said, “Look, John, anytime we’re talking, I’m giving you feedback. I’m giving you that counseling. So if we’re walking to the chow hall, I’m going to tell you how you’re performing. Anytime I see you, I want you to understand that this is an informal counseling session. As a leader, it may just seem like we’re having a conversation, but the reality is I am trying to give you feedback and I want to interact with you in a way where you become more comfortable receiving feedback. So I don’t want to sit across from you at a desk. I’d rather sit next to you at a restaurant and talk you through some of the things that I think you could do to improve.”
And that was some of the best leadership I ever observed because this commander really cared. It wasn’t so much the content of the feedback, but how the feedback was packaged. So feedback is a gift. The wrapping absolutely matters because if it’s wrapped in a way where we’re ready to receive it, we tend to receive a little bit better.
And so when you’re giving subordinate leaders that feedback, just understand that if you come out really hard, really bristly, they may not take that feedback so well. They may see it as a personal attack. They may not see it as you wanting to help them. And sometimes, even if you’re the nicest person in the world, they still will see the feedback as an attack or worse, they’ll see the feedback as something insignificant and they won’t take action on it.
We had this paralegal that works at our firm and her husband went to law school, became a lawyer. His name was, well, we’ll just say Rob. Rob ended up going to a massive law firm. And because the employees still worked at our firm, we stayed in touch. When I spoke with Rob, he would tell us about how great this firm was and the great mentorship and development and how he was just absolutely crushing it. And a year later, when Rob was terminated, he didn’t understand why, and he said a lot of bad things about the firm.
Now, I had a friend that was a partner at the firm, and I said, “Hey, uh, what happened to Rob?” And the friend explained to me, he said, “Look, Rob was an underperformer.” And I said, “Well, how would Rob not know that? Because the feedback I got was he was crushing it and you guys just fired him.” He’s like, “No, no, no, he was, he was horrible.” And I said, “Well, how did he not know he was horrible?” So the way the feedback sandwich would work is they’d say, “Hey, Rob, we really appreciate all your hard work. Your effort is really showing through. Um, look, we looked at your last project and your writing is pretty bad. Your research is inadequate. We probably just didn’t give you really good instructions. And by the way, we really appreciate your professionalism and your presence in the office.” And so what Rob didn’t hear is your writing sucks, your research sucks, it’s substandard. Instead, he heard that he was appreciated.
And so while they removed the bristles from the feedback, it didn’t hurt enough to make a difference. And sometimes if it’s not painful and, and I had an NCO teach me pain is a teaching tool, if it’s not painful enough, then they don’t understand the feedback. They don’t really receive it. And Rob’s perception probably was, gee, well, it sounds like I probably just didn’t get enough guidance on that project because everything else I’m doing is great. But what Rob didn’t hear is, man, you’re substandard. You need help. You need to improve. But nobody told him that so by the time he was terminated, he thought that he was doing a great job because no one had the guts to sit Rob down and say, “Rob, you are failing.” And that’s one of the problems with feedback. Because for some people, if we say you are failing, they shut down.
So the question is, how do we package the feedback as a gift that is acceptable? You know, we can’t be subjective, right? There’s a big difference between saying, “Rob, you are failing” and saying, “Rob, for the last two weeks, your numbers have been 70 percent below target.” That’s a lot different. And Rob might be more willing to hear that, but we don’t want to shroud it in compliments either so that he can’t find the truth.
Brutal honesty does not have to be brutal. You can be honest without being offensive, but you need to deal in facts, objective facts, as opposed to the subjective feelings you may have towards it. Because if you’re like me, when you’re dealing with an underperformer, you almost have a visceral reaction. And the reason why we feel that is because as leaders, especially in the military, we’re taught we’re responsible for everything, right? We hear that term “extreme ownership” thrown around and ownership shouldn’t be extreme because it can be dangerous, and it can affect our perception when we think we have to own everything.
And I made this mistake as a young leader. When I left the military, all of a sudden, I’m back in the civilian world, I’m running the family firm, and all these problems are happening and I’m just taking responsibility for, oh, the vendor didn’t deliver on time. That’s my fault. I should have communicated more with the vendor. The receptionist showed up late. Oh, that’s my fault. I forgot to communicate how important it is for her to be on time. I’ve got team members doing substandard work. My fault: I didn’t train them enough. Coffee ran out. My fault: I didn’t make sure that the Office Manager checked the supply list, right?
So I just started taking responsibility for everything and that was an absolute disservice to the organization. And I figured that out. We’re sitting in a meeting and some emergency had come up. I remember we’re all sitting in this meeting and everybody’s looking at me for the answer because I have solved everything. I’m sitting there and I’m looking around and some people are on their phones and nobody’s really paying attention, so I just got up and left. I wanted to see who the leaders were. The next day I came back and miraculously, the person who became the new Office Manager was the one who said, “Hey, John, um, I don’t know where you went yesterday, but we all talked through it and here’s the solution and we’re going to solve it.”
It was that moment that the light bulb went off in my head. It’s like, wait a minute, as the leader, I don’t need to solve all of the problems and it’s not always on me and look, sometimes when we take responsibility for everything, we lose sight of the fact that we as leaders, while you delegate authority and you never delegate the responsibility, we have to understand that some responsibilities must be placed on other team members, and if they fail, they’re going to fail.
Now, we have to be careful because as leaders, like in training, we can let people fail, but when it comes to live rounds, right, we don’t want to let anybody fail when it could be a disaster for the organization, where it could really harm somebody. So we have to temper the ownership with the real world consequences. And when our team members fail, we have to give them that feedback and it needs to be accurate, timely feedback. We can’t wait to deliver it.
I had a leader on my team that would wait till the end of the quarter to deliver feedback. This is the worst thing ever. What she would do is she would look at her subordinates, when they made mistakes, she’d write it down, and then during their quarterly counseling, she’d have an entire list of things they screwed up. This leader would tell her subordinates, you know, you screwed up this, this, and this. The subordinate would be like, “No, I didn’t.” The right thing for the leader to do is to address the problem right away, head on, and help the team member come up with a solution. And sometimes solutions are part of feedback.
Ideally, we let our subordinates come up with their own solutions so that we’re not always solving all their problems for them, but on the other hand, as a leader, sometimes the problem just needs to be fixed quickly and you have to make that decision. Is this a coachable moment where we’re going to let the leader make a mistake? I can remember, I’d say, “Lieutenant, are you sure you want to do that?” You know, as opposed to, “Lieutenant, that’s really stupid. Don’t do that.” Or are you going to fix it in the moment? And we have to make that decision. We have to decide, are we going to focus on developing the leader? Winners always seek feedback. And you can tell when the winners actually hit the objective. And they want more. How do I get better? I won the race, but I still want to shave two tenths of a second off my time.
Those are the winners that you need. And when they ask for feedback, I’m happy to give it to them. And more importantly, I love to hear their feedback because they’re watching me. And I want to know, how can I get better? And when you have winners that perpetually want feedback, whether they win or lose, those are the team members that are going to take you to the next level because they understand that feedback helps us to grow. That feedback is important to assess where we are and what actions we need to take to get even better.
And that is the game, right? As a leader, you don’t say, “I want to make you a better leader.” You want to say, “I want to make you an even better leader.” When we give that feedback, we want the team member to know that we cherish them, we honor them as a leader and with just, “You’re already a leader. We want to make you an even better leader.” Just adding the words “even better” can make a difference into how they will receive that feedback and whether they will implement the actions necessary to get to the next level. And as an organization, it is all about growth and you cannot grow without feedback. Feedback really is the fertilizer that you need in your soil that helps you establish the foundation for growth for your team.
Now there’s also dangerous feedback. And I can think back to this. E4, we all know about the E4 mafia, the shammers, the professional shammers, and we had this one shammer and he was, I think he was an E4 for like 10 years. It was ridiculous. He had made sergeant and lost the rank several times for various offenses. And he was great at giving feedback, great at giving compliments, but he was doing it for his own purposes, and he was manipulating leadership team members. He was manipulating soldiers. And the bad thing was this sham artist was the guy that was always on restriction or in trouble.
And so what happened is, new soldiers would come into the organization, and he would tell him how everything was done and give them feedback on how they performed, but he was in many ways, he was manipulating them to try to do the things that he wanted them to do. And you always have to be careful with that. People will compliment you. They’ll give you feedback, but you want to make sure that you understand the purpose behind their feedback, because not all feedback is good. As I said before, feedback from your champions is gold. Feedback from the person who has already climbed the mountain you’re trying to climb is absolute gold, but there’s a lot of feedback that’s just worthless.
So how do you know if the feedback is actually valuable or whether the feedback is reliable? Well, as a leader, you have to learn to become discerning, right? Remember RUMINT? Rumor intelligence? We would hear rumors of what was going on with enemy operations. Sometimes we’d hear rumors of what was going on in the unit, but rumors are just rumors, they’re not feedback. And unfortunately, sometimes we have subordinates who want to give us feedback based on rumors instead of based on the truth and that can be problematic, especially when you’re doing things like command climate surveys, where there’s a lot of perception out there that simply becomes reality. Because once the team starts perceiving things, it becomes reality. Then you start getting feedback based on perception, which, whoa, you’re actually in a position as a leader where you have to stop and assess and become discerning of the information that’s coming in, and look, that’s a difficult skill to build. It’s something you build over time in dealing with people.
And some of the best feedback I received was actually from a vendor. And I’m always leery of vendor feedback because vendors will often tell you what they need to tell you to get you to sign another contract, to continue paying them, even when they fail to deliver. I had one vendor and at one point we had a fractional CFO. We weren’t ready yet to bring the financial piece in house so we needed a fractional Chief Financial Officer who would advise me on the finances of the business because I wasn’t that good with finance. And when we hired this company, they were very upfront and the owner, her name was Brooke, I tried to hire her and she said, “Look, I have a full plate. I am training someone else. I can get you someone from my team in two months.” I’m like, “Two months? I need somebody now.” And she’s like, “Look, I’m going to be upfront with you. It takes me six months to bring someone fully up to speed in this job. And your finances for your team are important and I want to make sure that if I’m going to provide you a fractional CFO, they are well-qualified.” I said, “Okay, great.”
So I waited the two months, and I was assigned a woman named Laura. And the great thing about the fractional CFO was Laura did not know anyone on my team. In fact, she was in Texas and we’re in Nebraska. And every month Laura would go over the reports with me and just start calling out team members. “Who’s this Bob? I’m looking at his numbers. These are horrible. You need to fire him.” And I was like, wow. She’s like, “Look, like I’ve been looking at how he’s performing over the last few months and you’re losing a lot of money on this guy and he’s doing worse than Sally, worse than Kim and worse than Jessica. I don’t know what he’s doing, but he’s not working.” It’s like, wow, the great thing about Laura was she worked for me, she had no relationship with anybody in the firm and she would just beat me up over, “John, your projections are all wrong” or “John, why did you make this spend over here?” or “John, you can’t afford to do that” or “John, tell me the strategy behind this action that you just took that cost the firm a couple hundred thousand dollars. Tell me what’s going on.” And she was just brutal with me. I mean, she just beat me up.
But the feedback that she gave was absolute gold because it wasn’t tainted by who might be her favorite in the organization. She had no relationship with anybody on my team. She just looked at the numbers, looked at the performance, and then gave me actionable feedback. And that was such a gift, but here’s the real value in the story. They told me early on, “Look, we are really good at firms up to about $15 million. Once you hit $15 million, we are no longer qualified.” And so we’d been meeting, and we’d been doing really well. And then one day, Laura said, “Hey,” during a meeting, she said, “I need to set up a meeting between you and Brooke.” And I thought that was weird because Brooke, the CEO of the company, had been a friend of mine for years and Brooke could just pick up the phone and call me if she wanted to. She had my cell phone number. I had hers. And I said, “Okay, so go, let’s go ahead. Let’s calendar it.” Brooke just said, “Look, John, congratulations. You have outgrown our program. We will help you find in-house help, but we are no longer the right fit for you.”
Wow. Talk about refreshing. Talk about honest feedback. Most vendors would say, John, “Hey, you’re at the top of our list now, but we want to keep getting a check from you. We want to keep charging you money to see your success.” Brooke was blunt with me. She said, “John, you’ve outgrown the program.” I kind of felt like when I was like 16, I kept going to my children’s dentist and one day I showed up and the dentist is like, “Look, man, you’re 16 now. You’re an adult. You can’t go to a children’s dentist anymore.” It was, it was the same feeling.
They said, “John, you’ve graduated. I’m going to help you recruit and find the internal team members to do this for you. But you have to understand that you are at the next level now and we are not qualified to help you.” And I just thought, wow, brutal honesty and great feedback. And more importantly, it was so validating to hear, you know, when we started off, we were at a much smaller number and to have had that growth with this partner who was brutally honest the whole way there. And then once we got to the destination said, okay, this is where I get off because you’ve made it.
Now, when you can find a vendor like that with that level of honesty, but also just brutal feedback, that is where the growth happens. That’s really where the magic happens within your organization because Laura was just ruthless with me. She didn’t have any relationship with anybody on my team and that was key because I brought in other team members for other things.
And what I’ve noticed is within your organization, everybody has relationships. And so even now, even though I have someone full time now who works in our business department, I know that they all have relationships. I know that everybody works together. When Laura was there, she would just rip apart anybody from my Office Manager to my marketing team and say, you know, “No. This is wrong.” And once again, she was purely looking at it from the numbers perspective, not the human perspective. And so while I think I might have felt offended if I was the type of person that let people offend me, nothing she said was offensive. I’m sure had other team members heard what she said about them, they would have found it offensive, but it was absolutely true.
And I think that’s the key to great feedback is finding that honest broker who has no outside intentions whatsoever, who will give you the absolute truth, who will give it to you hard and fast, and then we’ll let you ask questions. And once you can accept that feedback, you can actually have clarity over what you need to do because that individual has given you the great gift of pure, transparent, unadulterated feedback. And when you get that feedback, and you don’t use it, you’re doing your team a disservice. So go out and be a hero to your team. Give them feedback.
When you receive feedback, consider the source. What’s in it for them? If someone’s giving you feedback, think what’s in it for them. Are they trying to sell you something? Is this a team member who’s trying to politic and maybe get a position? Or is this someone who just wants to compliment you and, and ask for a favor later? Or is this someone who really cares about you, cares about your organization, and wants to get you to the next level?
Now, you may hire coaches, you may have other individuals that, that will give you feedback, and I think that that can be valuable from time to time, but the reality is you have to ask yourself, is this person invested in my success? Or is this person invested in something else? But once you get the right feedback, show gratitude. Thank you. Thank them for the feedback.
And it’s a reciprocal gift. Don’t ever be afraid to give someone feedback. I have found that the people that I like to hang out with, the people that I respect and trust, are the people who can actually take the feedback. The individuals who do not get offended when I tell them, “Hey, look, I think your podcast really isn’t that good” or, “Hey, I think you could do a few things better.” That is valuable feedback. We all want to hear it from somebody. And we never get enough of it because people are afraid to offend us, they’re afraid of our feelings, they don’t want to hurt the relationship. But as leaders, we have to listen to the feedback, and we have to be willing to give the feedback. And if we can’t do that, then we’re not leading anything, and we might as well just hang it up because true leaders understand that feedback is the way to the bigger future.
After Action Review
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