In each platoon, there are countless opportunities for personal growth and development. Whether they be technical skills or leadership abilities, all soldiers are encouraged to step out of their comfort zone and push themselves to their higher potential. In this episode of Veteran Led, John Berry emphasizes the role that ranks and positions play in the military and professional world, and how recognizing individual achievements and fostering mentorship can encourage team members to enhance their performance, contributing to the success of their teams.
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, we’re talking about knowledge development. You may remember knowledge development in the military in the form of broadening assignments. We understand that the team leader does not go from the team leader position to squad leader, to platoon sergeant, to first sergeant, to command sergeant major without some type of broadening in between. And so we would see young soldiers who would get the opportunity to become instructors, observer controllers, students, or even escalate to some large organization like TRADOC.
The brilliant thing about the army pay structure is that it separates pay grade and rank from leadership positions. In other words, there could be an E6, a staff sergeant, who is serving as the battalion’s assistant S3 and that same individual could later, as an E6 at the same pay grade, be a squad leader. The leadership position is not directly tied to compensation and that works out well, especially in civilian organizations where leaders can and should rotate out.
At Berry law, we have leadership positions, but no leadership position is guaranteed. As the saying goes, “A leader is not a leader until that position is ratified in the hearts and minds of his soldiers.” Similarly, you can put someone in a leadership position, but if they are not getting it done, they’re not really a leader. And there are also leaders who lead without titles, who lead without being put in a leadership position. They simply are the person everyone goes to to get stuff done and they’re the person the team trusts to take care of them.
Anyone who has ever worked in a civilian organization understands that there’s a huge difference between technical skills and leadership skills. And some of the best technicians are the worst leaders and should never be placed in a leadership position. In the military we try to develop both so that we have people with technical skills, and we advance them through leadership opportunities, but we also have to develop those technical skills and develop and mentor them as a whole and that’s where knowledge development comes in. We have to continue to develop our team members and give them opportunities outside of the standard leadership positions.
In my organization, leadership positions must be earned. They are not retained year after year. And this is important because not every valuable team member is fit to lead. We rotate the leadership position because it’s good for the individual, but also good for the organization. Think about it. Your first sergeant wasn’t your first sergeant for five years. Why? You rotated out of the organization and the first sergeant rotated out of the organization. If it was a good first sergeant, he became a sergeant major, probably a command sergeant major.
The point is the entire team needs the growth opportunity. The entire team needs the knowledge development opportunity. Throughout your military career, you probably saw the career path. Someone might’ve shown you a diagram and said, “Hey, you’re a team leader here. In a couple of years, you’ll be a squad leader. You’ll have this knowledge management assignment. Maybe you’ll become a drill sergeant, a drill sergeant instructor. Eventually you’ll become a platoon sergeant.” And they walked you through that. One of the problems with being a smaller organization is that we don’t have the same development and management capabilities.
Now, as a law firm, we can develop lawyers, we can develop paralegals, but when it comes to taking teams from finance, IT and HR, we really can’t develop those individuals. We just don’t have the specialty knowledge or the specialty training and quite frankly, most of that training comes from highly specialized schools, but more importantly, we don’t have the infrastructure to grow those individuals, but the great ones are leaders regardless.
Fortunately, at Berry Law, we hire team members with the initiative to forge their own path if one does not exist. A great example of this is our HR director. She started off as a paralegal. When we needed to replace an Office Manager, she stepped up, she went through the training, and she excelled. A few years later we determined that we needed a Law Firm Administrator. She applied for the job, and she wasn’t ready, but she agreed to get the certification. She got the certification, we eventually moved her into the position, and she did a great job until we got to the point where I needed to hire a Chief Operating Officer, which meant we would no longer have a law firm administrator. Her position would be eliminated. Now, instead of getting down about it and saying, “Why are you replacing me?” She said, “Well, where are my opportunities?” Well, she was great on the HR side, great with benefits, great in dealing with promotions and people, so we helped her get trained, she got her PhD and has moved up and is now our Director of HR and does a phenomenal job, and this is a great success story.
Like I said, we can build paralegals, we can build lawyers, but we didn’t have the internal capability to build an HR Director. But this leader was willing to create her own path to ensure that the team was taken care of, and she put the needs of the team first. And we all know that from the military, right? It’s the needs of the military. I had a friend that was going to do the FLEP program, the funded law program, and he didn’t get in because he was a combat engineer and the needs of the military were such that even though he had a great score on the LSAT, would have been a great law student, the needs were for combat engineers, not for additional lawyers, and so he didn’t get the opportunity.
And the reality is in even smaller organizations that happens all the time. We may have individuals who would be phenomenal at the next level position, but we don’t have the next level position because we’re just not there yet. We’re a growing organization. So how do we deal with that? Well, one way to deal with that is to determine which positions we can no longer build for, but instead that we need to hire in. We need to buy it, not build it. And that position was the COO I was just talking about.
Now, when I was looking for this position, I was very specific. I retained a headhunter and made my position clear: “I need a veteran who is a former company commander with an MBA and a JD, and this has to be a person that has been in an organization that is larger than nine figures and has had a significant leadership role in that organization.” The recruiter or headhunter kind of laughed and said, “Well, I don’t know. You’re looking for a unicorn. That’s really tough. I don’t know how many are out there.” I said, “Look, I just need one. You need to find me the one that fits.” And after about six months, they brought me my COO. He was a perfect fit. Platoon leader in Iraq, company commander in Afghanistan, he had his JD, although he’d never practiced law, he had an MBA, he’d worked at a large service organization, and he had also worked at an AM Law 50 firm, that means one of the 50 largest law firms in the world. He had the experience that I needed to get to the next level.
And so he was there for my knowledge development. Sometimes as a leader, you have to learn from your team members. So we bring in the Chief Operating Officer, the individual who’s going to be running the company, to teach me what I need to know. And he was vastly superior in areas of IT, HR, and he brought skills that I didn’t even think the organization needed. It worked out really well until he had to move on to his next opportunity and he came into my office and told me that, “Hey, look, I have been offered the CEO job of an organization three times the size of ours.” And now I had him under contract, could have kept him for another year, but the reality is this was a great leadership success story. When my team member, my S3, my COO, my XO, whatever you want to call them, but my second in command, who’s in a staff position was offered a command position at a company three times the size of ours, well, now he’s the new commander. I was so proud. And so I let him out of the contract, and he went to that new position.
One question you may have is that, well, after your Chief Operating Officer left, after your second in command left, the person you were relying on to develop your knowledge IT, Finance, and HR, how did you continue to develop yourself? And the answer is I continued to hire more experts on our team. And of course I sought outside knowledge.
One of the greatest knowledge development adventures I ever went on was attending Jerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College near Dubois, Wyoming. At that school there’s no cell service and you’re there for about three weeks. The first week is psychotherapy. The last two weeks are trial skills. And on one of the last days, you show up in the morning, nobody’s allowed to talk to anybody and you go off and come back in the evening, and the idea is you have to answer two questions. When you come back, you must know who you are and what you are going to do with the rest of your life. Then you share it with the group. And this is where authenticity comes in as a leader because your greatest knowledge development is the knowledge of yourself, knowing who you are as a leader and where you intend to take the organization.
As we grow our teams, we must grow our leaders. And as we grow our leaders, we have to evolve, which means our thinking has to evolve, which means our leadership techniques have to evolve, and our entire team must evolve. This can be scary because a lot of us get to a point where we’re comfortable, but I can tell you as a leader, at some point you have to decide where you’re going to stop.
When I was at Fort Leavenworth at my battalion command school, I heard a great, great saying from one of the instructors. He said, “Battalion command is the last time that your soldiers will recognize your walk in the night. After that, you’re basically an administrator.” And I thought a lot about that and my final position in the military was in the National Guard. I was the Battalion Commander of the Officer and Warrant Officer Candidate School. And I loved training the soldiers, the leaders who wanted more, who wanted to become commissioned, who wanted bigger challenges. It was a great opportunity.
And when they told me that, “Well, we have a position for you, we’ll move you to an O6 slot, you’ll be at Joint Forces Headquarters.” I thought, no, that’s, that’s not it. I don’t want to evolve and develop into an administrator. I want to be a leader. And so from my perspective, that’s where I stopped. That’s where I was going to stop evolving. I didn’t want to learn how to become an administrator. I wanted to continue to lead. And so this is where I stopped evolving and that’s okay.
As a leader, you need to know where you stop, but more importantly, have that discussion with your team members, because I have promoted team members to leadership positions, which they were not ready for, which they could not handle and which they did not want. And if they don’t want that burden of command as a leader, especially the higher echelons, do not force it on them. I have made so many mistakes, destroyed leaders, destroyed professionals because I pushed them to that level when they didn’t want it. And as you know, as a leader, you have to want it. You have to want it not just for your own ego or for your own professional development, but you have to want it for the teams that you’re leading now and the teams that you want to lead in the future.
After Action Review:
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