Day 1 in the military, the drill sergeant assigns you a buddy. The buddy system teaches safety, accountability, and strength in numbers; “no soldier left behind” starts with the buddy system. In this episode of Veteran Led, John Berry sheds light on the buddy system’s value and how essential it is to organizational success. From recruitment to personal growth, John shares how establishing the buddy system at Berry Law had a profound effect on building the team and ensuring its continuity. In life, in the military, and in business, you need a buddy to survive.
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 3, The Buddy System: the first team you ever had.
Day 1, in the military, we are all assigned a buddy. We operate in buddy teams. And think about what happened during basic training or boot camp; you didn’t go anywhere without your buddy. You go to the latrine with your buddy, the chow hall with your buddy, you do not leave the company area without your buddy. And it continues for the rest of your military career. In fact, some of this may sound familiar, right? You don’t go anywhere without your weapon. They don’t even trust you with a weapon until you can prove you can be responsible with a buddy. The buddy team becomes important throughout the military career.
And after you get through basic or boot camp, you show up at your new unit and usually you’re assigned a sponsor. And that sponsor becomes your buddy until you have one, or until you have a group of buddies. But the buddy team, especially as an officer, you come in as a new lieutenant, and you’re assigned a senior, noncommissioned officer, who’s the platoon sergeant. And that platoon sergeant is your buddy, and he keeps you straight, and makes sure that you do the right things, and is also there to develop and mentor you. As you move on to becoming a company commander, your buddy is the first sergeant, and on and on until you’re the battalion commander, and you’ve got the sergeant major as your buddy. And it continues to develop that way, and it works for all of us throughout our entire military careers. We always have a buddy. And even when we split from our buddies, we have a buddy.
I can remember around Christmas 2005 when I was in Iraq, and we had a bunch of Christmas packages coming in. I was at Al Assad, I had some of my soldiers at a FOB called Dogwood, others were in Fallujah, and I wanted to make sure we got their presents to them on time. Now that being said, there was a lot going on, so I left the first sergeant in the company area, and said, “I gotta deliver these packages.” And he said, “Well sir, you can’t go alone.” So, I linked up with a brigade sergeant major, and said, “Hey, would you go with me?” And he said, “Sure, I’ll be your buddy.” And we hopped on a helicopter and flew into Dogwood with duffel bags full of presents. We were going to go from Dogwood and then just hop a flight back to Fallujah. What we didn’t know was that because Dogwood was closing down soon, there were no flights out. So, when we landed, we tried to coordinate a flight back and they said, “No, you probably want to go to the TOC and see what convoys are coming through.”
Fortunately, there was a Marine convoy that was coming through and was going to leave shortly thereafter. I flagged down the lieutenant in charge the convoy and he said, “Hey, yeah, I’d be happy to.” They had one Humvee that just had a driver, a TC, and a gunner so he said, “Hey, we got room in the back. Both you guys can jump in. Do you have weapons?” And we looked down at our nine mils and he’s like, “So, you don’t have any weapons.” That was a mistake. Luckily, they had seized a bunch of AK 47s and ammo, and they handed us each an AK 47, and we got in the back of the vehicle, made it through Fallujah without incident, and then got to our second stop and delivered the presents. That whole time, that sergeant major was my buddy, and even though he wasn’t my assigned buddy, I needed a buddy for that mission. And the point is, you never go on a mission alone. In the military, or in the civilian world, you have to have a buddy.
I think one of the challenges is that buddy does not stay the same. Your buddy in basic training or boot camp, your Airborne School buddy, it’s going to be a different buddy, and you’re going to graduate from buddies. And quite frankly, as you excel in your military career, the higher you move up, the higher level of buddy you have. And that’s a good thing. Generally, if you can ever pick your buddy, you want a buddy who compliments your skills, who’s better at things than you are. If you and your buddies have the same skillset, sometimes it’s going to work to your disadvantage. For instance, when I have a Chief Operating Officer, I want someone who is a little bit more patient, and meticulous, and better at coaching. As I run the organization, I’m going a million miles an hour. I’m doing what I love to do every day, and I don’t have the patience to do some of the things. I also don’t have the training in finance, HR, and some of the other skills that my COO has. So, my COO is that buddy that compliments me in running the organization.
Another buddy that I have is my Executive Assistant. And the old saying goes, if you don’t have an Executive Assistant, you are one. But the Executive Assistant isn’t just someone who’s taking tasks off my plate, it’s someone who’s keeping me straight the entire time. If I have a meeting, that Executive Assistant is making sure I’m at the right meeting at the right time, kind of like a general’s aide-de-camp. That’s the general’s buddy is aide-de-camp. When I have an Executive Assistant, I make sure that I pick someone who is highly responsible, highly intelligent. I’m not looking for a gopher. I’m looking for a buddy who has skills that compliment mine, or looking for that Yin and Yang, where I may be lacking in some areas and that other person may be better. I can be hyper-organized, but I don’t like to be. If someone else can do that better than me, then I want them to do it.
And that’s really what the buddy team is about. It’s about putting your ego aside and working with people who can help you be even better because they have skills that you don’t possess. That helps you focus on the things that are the highest and best use of your time. When I think of all the different things that have happened throughout the business and Berry Law, having a buddy was crucial. And I can tell you, I’ve had different buddies at different stages, especially during different crises. There are times in business where your General Counsel is your best buddy, and there will be times when you have to terminate someone, and HR is your best buddy. There will be times when you have to make some really tough financial decisions and you’re going to have to rely on your financial team, your CFO, to be your buddy in that fight. But if you think you can go out as a leader and make all the decisions on your own and you know everything, you will absolutely fail.
A lot of you remember the 360-degree assessments in the military where you would be assessed by your leaders, your peers, and your subordinates. You’d get feedback, but it’s that buddy, that really close buddy, who will actually tell you what feedback is valuable and where to look. Having that ability to be with someone who really knows you is where all the gold is in feedback. As much as feedback is a gift, if you have a buddy with you, the buddy is going to see things that you will never see and hear things that you’ll never hear. Because a lot of times we only hear and see what we want to hear and see, and the buddy sets us straight.
So, in terms of what we learned in the military about the buddy, and throughout our careers, we never went anywhere without a buddy. And if you think about it, we never accomplished anything without a buddy, right? Your civilian counterparts who watch Rambo think that the way wars are won is some crazy guy going out in the woods and killing everybody. And the reality is that’s not how wars are won. Wars are won by large organizations working together, aligned. That can’t happen unless you have that buddy team working together at the lowest levels. That’s what scales; teams working together. And if you can’t lead a buddy, well then you can’t lead anybody else.
I know a lot of people in business who say, “I want to make it all and I want to take it all.” They think that they can make a lot of money on their own, they can bring it all in, they can do everything, they don’t want any help. And that’s great, but that’s not scalable. And it’s a recipe for disaster. If you’re the only one on the team, what happens when you’re sick? What happens when you’re doing another project and you can’t get back to a customer? It doesn’t work. Business is all about the buddy team. And in fact, at Berry Law, we have made it crucial in our recruiting. It is crucial that there is a buddy assigned. When a new member comes in, we assign a buddy. And the way we get the best talent is through the buddy system. If you think about this, think about where you are in your life and the five best people you know. Would you be more happy at work if they were on your team? If they were your buddies?
A lot of times in the work environment, we get thrown in with a bunch of people we don’t know, and it’s by chance that we develop good relationships. It’s by chance that we find a member. At Berry Law, it’s not by chance, it is by choice. We decide, as a team, that our culture is going to be a buddy team culture. That when someone comes into the organization, they are assigned a buddy.
And by the way, getting back to those five people that you know that you would want on your team, we encourage them to recruit those five people. Now, not their cousin, Eddie, who needs a job, but the superstars. The superstars that they want on their team? Absolutely. Bring them over. We’ll vet them; and if they’re good enough, we’ll take them on the team. Here’s how we incentivize that: we say, look, if you bring a team member over, $25,000 bonus. But here’s how we do it. It is a recruiting and retention bonus to support our buddy system. So, if Joe brings on Mike, Joe gets a $25,000 bonus, but it’s paid out $5,000 a year at the anniversary of every year that Mike and Joe are there. So, Joe brings on Mike, and as long as Mike is there for five years and Joe is there for five years, Joe’s getting $5,000 a year bonuses for five years for $25,000. Now, the great thing is, if Joe wants to bring all his buddies, if Joe wants to bring Mike and Sarah and Jessica, he’s going to be getting $15,000 a year, and if they all stay for five years, that’s $75,000 in bonuses. That is a lot cheaper than paying a recruiter, but more importantly, Joe is now working with people he wants to work with; buddies that he knows, likes, and trusts. He is able to bring his dream team to our team, and that is where the power is. They want to continue to be on the team, and they want to continue to bring in top players.
This has been a game changer for us. Do we pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars to team members for recruiting fees? Yes. But I would be paying the same amount to headhunters, and the difference is, we have better retention.
Everybody knows about recruiting and retention in the military. We always had an NCO that was assigned, the retention NCO, that would talk to everybody, and have the stay interviews, and say, “Hey, would you be willing to stay? And we want you to reenlist.” And then, of course, they’d get fed the same line that the recruiters would feed them: “Hey, if you reenlist, we’ll give you all these great things.” Usually most of those things happened or were true, but not always because deployments would happen and sometimes the promises of, “Hey, if you reenlist, you’ll get an opportunity to go to this school and do that,” and then bam, deployment hits. “Oh, sorry, you’re not going to get that opportunity.” I saw it happen to my soldiers and they felt really betrayed and deceived by the military when that happened. And for some of them, that was the reason why they reenlisted. But for me, I want the reason why people reenlist in my organization, is not for any specific benefit they might get in the future, but rather because they are part of a team that they don’t want to leave, that they are a part of a championship team.
This past week, I did the 50 Mile March. For those of you that aren’t familiar with it, it is walking 50 miles, there’s no weight requirement, I had a rucksack, but you can carry a camelback, and you go, and it’s to raise awareness for veteran suicide, mental health problems, veteran homelessness. And we raised a ton of money for it, but the reason why I did it was because my buddy, that sergeant major that went with me in Iraq to Dogwood and Fallujah on Christmas to deliver presents, asked me to do it. And that’s the buddy relationship that I want on my team. I really want to feel that. And so, if I think back and I talk back to some of the other officers from the 90s, we were new lieutenants together, they all just want to get back to being that platoon leader again, where they have that great feeling of being on a great team.
But the great team starts with the buddy team. So, when my buddy, Command Sergeant Major Haith, says, “Hey, John, I got this, there’s this thing I’m working on. You walk 50 miles; you raise money for charity.” Number one, I don’t like to walk 50 miles. Number two, I’m not a big fan of asking people for money. So, it made me uncomfortable, but what would make me more uncomfortable, would be to let my buddy down. When you have a buddy that asks you for something, it doesn’t even matter. It was funny, as I began to raise money for this, which once again, I was uncomfortable asking for the money, so a lot of people, I just texted, reached out, and one of my buddies said, “Oh, I don’t even care what it’s for, just tell me how much you need.” What can I do to help you? Because you’re my buddy. And those are the buddy teams that we want in business. Those are the buddy teams, whether it’s our vendors or team members, where we have somebody that we can count on.
Well, let’s go back to the beginning. But what about when we showed up at basic training and we were assigned a buddy, and the buddy was a dirt bag? Does everybody remember that? Oh, I was assigned some dirt bag buddies. And probably, to be fair, I’m sure I had some buddies that thought I was the dirt bag. The reality is once you’re assigned a buddy, you take care of that buddy, not because you care about that buddy as much as you do about your responsibility to the organization.
Now, that being said, we do fight battles for what’s behind us, not what’s in front of us, and we do want to take care of our soldiers. But if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we have all been in situations where we have been assigned a buddy that is an anchor on our neck, that no matter how hard we try, we just cannot help them. But the reality is, if you’re the boss of your company, and you’ve got a non-performing buddy, you want to help him, right? But if you can’t help them, you’ve got to let them go. But there will always be that period of time where someone on your team has to help that non-performer. And sometimes it’s worth, as a leader, stepping up and saying, “Hey, I understand that you may not have the buddy you want, but we’re giving you this extra cross to bear because we know you can bear it. And we know that this person may be affecting your performance. We get it. We’re aware of it. We don’t think less of you and in fact, we are giving you that challenge because this person needs a buddy. And, if by some miracle, you can turn this person into a high performer, then that just shows us how great you are.” So don’t look at this as you got stuck with the buddy you didn’t want, but rather you got an opportunity to develop a buddy.
And I never, never, never underestimate that when you are that buddy in the buddy team that is pulling all the weight, that you are making an impact on the life of the buddy you’re helping. We all go through stuff and struggles that nobody knows anything about. And I have carried the weight of some buddies who seemed like dead weight at the time, but it turns out they were just going through something that was pretty rough, and they didn’t want to talk about it.
Now in a great buddy team, we would know everything about each other, and we would talk. But that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes your buddy’s going through a struggle, and you’ve got to step up and help them. If you’ve had a bad buddy in the military, whether it was at a basic training or bootcamp, you know what happens, right? They screw up and you’re doing pushups with them. And then the next thing you know, you’re following them into the shower, the latrine, everywhere to make sure they don’t lose their weapon, to make sure they don’t do something else stupid. Look, that’s the downside of the buddy system is when you get an incompetent buddy. But it’s about you, right? At that point, you can’t control what they do. You can’t point the finger; if you point the finger at them, that’s where you give the power. You got to point the thumb at yourself and say, okay, I may not have the best buddy in the world but let me try to make this buddy born again hard. Let me try to motivate them, let me educate them, let me develop this buddy into somebody great because they’re a reflection of me. Now, good news is, if they’re a poor performer, they’re not going to be your buddy forever. But at least you could shoulder more than your share of the burden by taking care of that buddy.
Now, I want to take you to the other edge of the sword. When you get the buddy who’s the better performer than you, and you feel like you’re completely incompetent, you feel like they’re carrying the weight of the team. How inspiring is that? I feel that way a lot of times running my company, like I’m the one that’s slowing us down, all my staff are better than me, they all are better in their individual assigned areas than I am, but that’s the whole point, right? My job is to make them even better, not to be better than them. If you’re in a buddy team and your buddy is the one that is better at PT, smarter, more experienced, great! Learn from them. Help make them even better. Don’t worry about being the same or as good as your buddy. You are blessed when you get a buddy that’s better than you. And I’ve learned that the hard way where I was miserable because my buddy was smarter than me, better than me. And that’s happened to me as a trial attorney, where I would be jealous because I’m working with someone who’s better than me and I’m thinking, John, that is so stupid. You are blessed to be working with this amazing lawyer, or with other executives on the team.
A’s hire A’s, but B’s hire C’s. And the reason why B’s hire C’s is because they don’t want a buddy on their team who’s better than them. Look, if you’re a leader, you want to hire everybody that’s better than you. I think it was Google that said, we only hire people that are better than us. And if you’re going to hire anybody on your team, they had better do something better than you. And that’s where the buddy team really becomes important. It’s because you understand that your buddy, the person that you’re in the foxhole with, the person that you’re with day in, day out, is better than you at things. And if you have nothing to give, if you can’t provide any value to them whatsoever based on your own skills, the one thing you can provide, is you can say, “How can I make you better? Hey, let me get lunch today, or let me take out your trash, or let me find a way to help take all these small tasks out of your way. Let me do this paper for you. Let me get on the phone with the vendors for you. Let me help you.” If you have a buddy who’s a higher performer than you, show value. And sometimes that value isn’t that you’re going toe-to-toe with them, but that you will help them become even better, that you’ll remove obstacles for them without them asking, that you will be a hero to them in small ways, even though you can never be the hero to them in the way you want to. But it shows them, it demonstrates the value.
And the more time you spend around those high performing buddies, the more it wears off on you. And if you appreciate and respect what they do, they’re going to make you better. And when you get better, you’re going to find yourself with that buddy who aspires to be you, and you’re going to be a hero to that buddy who looks up to you as the example. And I can tell you time and time again, from being a dumb second lieutenant knowing nothing, to being a company commander, the game changes. And sometimes you don’t even realize it, that all of a sudden there are a lot of people looking up to you. And that first sergeant who you think is omniscient and omnipotent is looking to you, looks up to you and respects you. Those are the lessons that you need to grow an organization, to scale an organization. If you have a team member who can’t have a buddy, can’t lead a buddy, they can’t lead 10 people, they can’t lead a hundred people. They can’t even lead themselves. It starts off with leading one buddy. You do that and you’re a leader.
Buddy System After Action Review: Number one, nobody does it on their own. You need a team, and that team starts with the buddy team. Number two, the buddy team starts day one with onboarding. Just like in the military where day one you were assigned a buddy, when a new member comes to your organization, assign them a buddy, and a highly competent one. Number three, the buddy system is crucial for retention. If you don’t have buddy teams within your organization, you will lose people. The converse is that strong buddy teams result in strong retention.
Three down: you are going to outgrow your most proficient buddies. If your buddy sucks, you have the wrong buddy. But at some time in our careers, we’ve all had the wrong buddy, and sometimes that’s just the cross you have to bear. Sometimes you have to carry the weight of someone else, and that is the burden of being a leader, and that is the burden of having teams. Not all of your buddies will be better than you, which brings me to the final point of the AAR. If your buddy isn’t better than you, find a new buddy. Yes, there are times when you will have to carry the weight of others, but that should not be by default. By default, you should look for a stronger buddy who complements your strengths and makes you even better.
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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