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Episode 35

Episode 35: Consultants, Coaches and Charlatans: Mentorship Triumphs and Traps


When you start out in a new industry, you’re looking for all the help and guidance you can get. In this episode of Veteran Led, John Berry shares stories of the successes and scams he encountered when seeking mentors in new industries and roles. He’ll provide tips on what behaviors and characteristics to look for to find a suitable and valuable guide.


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. 

You have done live fire exercises. You do not need to do fire walks. In this episode of Veteran Led, I’m going to tell you about why I created the Veteran Led podcast and what I hope to achieve with it. But first, I want to take you back to your military education and development.  

Remember when you wanted to get promoted? You knew that you had to reach certain educational requirements and you had to hit certain leadership development milestones, which may have included successfully completing a leadership position. If you didn’t hit those milestones, if you didn’t check the block, you didn’t get promoted.  

And there was this promotion escalator. You could move up the escalator if you performed, if you did the things that were required to get to the next level. Now that you’ve left the military service, the reality is you don’t have that concrete plan anymore, or if you do, you belong to a great organization. But if you’re building your own organization, you’re going to have to build that not just for your team, but for yourself. 

How are you going to develop into the leader that your team will need in the future?  Years ago, I was in San Antonio, and I was there for a business conference, and I reached out to a veteran leader who I greatly admired. This individual was not only a success on the battlefield, but a success in business. And I admire this man greatly, so I reached out and I was surprised when he responded and said, “Yes, I would love to have lunch with you.”  

Now this man was echelons above my reality. His company was several times the size of mine and I never thought I could ever be as great as he was. But when I sat down and talked with him, this man told me what my future would be. He said, “Your business is here right now. Here’s what’s going to happen in the next year.” And he was absolutely right. And he knew because he had been on that journey, but we also communicated really well because we shared the same values. We spoke the same language and we both understood that great leaders wanted to serve their teams. 

And this man coached me and developed me for free. And that’s really what I wanted to build out of the Veteran Led community; where we have experts coming on to tell us about how they built their large businesses or their small businesses or their nonprofits and talk about how they used the skills that they already had to grow those businesses, to grow those organizations, because the reality is we have the base skills. We’ve learned what we need to know in the military. We just need someone to guide us on the way, to continue to shepherd us to grow into the leaders that we can become.  

That is what Veteran Led is all about. It is using those basic skills that we learned as veterans, those great experiences, and those great mentors from the military, and reaching out to those who have gone on to the civilian world and done even greater things. This man mentored me for years, and since that time I have reached out to coaches, consultants, and others to try to gain the knowledge to grow my team and to become a better leader. And the reality is that some of those consulting or coaching programs are great, and some of them are a complete rip-off. 

And let’s face it, if you’re a veteran who’s been through a live fire exercise with real rounds going downrange, you don’t need to do some parlor trick like a fire walk or break boards with your hands to prove that you can handle adversity, that you can overcome challenges, because you’ve already done it in real life, and you don’t need a gimmick to prove it to yourself. 

So let’s start with coaches. There are great coaches out there, and I’ll talk about some of them. And there are some horrible coaches out there. The coaching industry is really the wild, wild west, and there’ll be individuals who will tell you that they’ve done great things that they have never done, and then there are those who have accomplished great things who can share that information with you and make you even better. 

So let me first tell you a story about a friend I had that called me about a year ago. In his first year in business, he made about $85,000 and he was pretty happy about that, but then he told me he had bottlenecks all over the place. He needed help in his industry. He needed a coach, and he was wondering how I got my coach. 

So I talked him through my experiences. Then he called me back a week later and said, “Okay, I think I found a coach. I found this guy online. It seems like a great coaching program. It’s in my industry. I’m really excited.” And so I said, “Great, great. Let me know what happens.” And he called me back and he said, “I’ve got an uneasy feeling about this. This just doesn’t seem right.” I said, “Did you talk to the coach?” He’s said, “Well, I think so.” And I said, “Well, who did you talk to?” And he explained to me, I said, “Oh no, no, you talk to a salesperson. That’s not the coach.” And he said, “Oh, it’s not?” And I said, “No. Why don’t you see if you can talk to the coach?”  

And he called me back the next week and said, “I’m not doing this.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Well, I tried to talk to the coach, and they said, ‘No, you, you can’t talk to the coach till you hire us.’ And then I asked if I was going to get the person on the website and they said, ‘Well, you’ll get an assistant coach to start off with. But if you can move up through the Ascension program, you can be coached by the guru.’” And he, he didn’t like that answer. And finally he asked for a resume of the person who was going to coach him, this assistant coach, and they wouldn’t provide it. And to him, that was a red flag and he said, “No.” And I think he was right.  

Now, generally, when it comes to coaching, I like to look at both a coach inside the industry and outside the industry. Now within my industry, I’ve had some great coaches. These are the subject matter experts who have climbed the mountain that I want to climb. And then I’ve also went outside the industry to talk to other coaches and other businesses who, while they do something a little bit different, they believe in the core principle that all businesses are pretty much the same and that businesses and other industries may be innovating and doing things that your industry is not doing, and you may be able to take something away from that. So I try to do both.  

With that being said, many times when we need the advice, the coach isn’t there. I mean, right now, if you have a coach, text your coach, see if that coach responds. If you don’t have your coach’s cell phone number, then what kind of relationship do you have? 

Now I understand that a lot of people in the coaching industry will talk about their strong boundaries and that’s, that’s great if you have boundaries, but if you’re the one paying for the service and you need help right now, it’s an emergency for your business, shouldn’t you be able to reach out to that coach and get that help? 

Think about your coach. Think about your first sergeant, your platoon sergeant, well you never wanted to call the first sergeant, but your squad leader, you could probably reach out to the squad leader, right? Or if I was platoon leader, I hated to reach out to the company commander, but I had his cell phone and I could do it if I needed to. Very similarly, if you have a coach who is guiding you and mentoring you when you run into those emergency situations, they should be available.  

Now, the other thing you have to look out for is whether you’re getting the coach or getting the coach’s flunky. And that’s what happened to my friend. He wasn’t getting the coach on the website. They were going to give him one of the flunkies. And this person was a flunky because they wouldn’t even provide a resume of the assistant coach.  

Some of the best coaching experiences I have had came from my peers. There are a lot of mastermind groups out there or groups like EO, the Entrepreneurs Organization, or Vistage or YPO, Young Presidents Organization. These are great peer groups where you can learn from your peers and there are also separate industry specific masterminds. Those are all great opportunities to learn from individuals who are facing the same struggles. It’s always amazing when I go to one of these groups; most of the people in the group have experienced the same problem that I have, or we’re experiencing the same problem at the same time if there’s an economic change or a problem within the industry that many of us are seeing develop.  

Whether you’re in a mastermind group, or you have an individual coach or consultant, be aware of what I like to call the coaching crutch. This is where a leader will refuse to make a decision until they consult with their coach. 

Recently, I was working with a company, and the company had failed to perform. And I was trying to fix the problem, and I offered a solution. And they said, “Well, we can’t do that.” I said, “Why not?” “Well, we would need to consult with our business coach first.” I’m like, “Really?” Now, maybe that was a tactic to delay and buy time, but the reality is as much as it is nice to have a coach to bounce things off of, as a leader, you can’t abdicate responsibility, you can’t blame your coach if you make a bad decision.  

The coach is there to provide you guidance and information but ultimately, it’s up to you. And if your coach gives you bad advice, it’s still on you. If your coach gives you bad advice, you may still get sued. You may still go bankrupt. And one of the key things to understand as well as if you’re using that coaching crutch, you had better make sure your coach has all the relevant information to make that decision because if you come to a coach and you only give them part of the information, they’re not going to be able to help you. Now, that being said, there are plenty of coaching groups out there that don’t even ask for the relevant information, and you have to watch out for that.  

Now, my intent is not to bash the entire coaching industry and I have had some great experiences with paid coaches. One of them is Dan Sullivan’s “10x Program.” Dan Sullivan is a veteran, and he has a great program that teaches you how to think about your thinking. There are plenty of thinking tools that you can use to develop your business. I really enjoyed my time in that program.  

Now, another coaching program that I used where I had great results worked because I went in with a specific goal. I planned to hire my first Chief Operating Officer, but I had no idea how to do it or how to figure out what type of Chief Operating Officer would work for me because as I had done my research, I learned that there are Chief Operating Officers may have different focuses in different areas of the business and so I didn’t quite understand how it worked.  

So I reached out to peers who told me about the COO Alliance and the coach who ran it named Cameron Herold. So I contacted Cameron and I agreed to do an individual coaching program for two years. I said, “In year one, I want you to help me vet, find, and hire my Chief Operating Officer. In year two, I want you to help me onboard that Chief Operating Officer, make sure it’s the right fit, and if it’s not, help me offboard him and find somebody else.”  

And so it was a great two years of coaching. I got exactly what I wanted. Cameron was open, up front, and he understood the objective. And when I was looking for things that were probably out of balance for the role, he told me, he said, “John, that’s not what your COO does, that’s a Director of Operations task, or that’s an Executive Assistant task.” But he was very good at helping me solve this specific problem. And the success came from being aligned with a coach who cared enough about my success to ensure that I made the right decisions.  

Now, coaches and consultants are sometimes horrible. Some of them come in with preconceived notions about you or your organization and they do a terrible job. There’s a great book out there called “Amped Up” by Frank Slootman, and he tells the joke about a consultant is someone who borrows your watch, tells you what time it is, and then keeps the watch. In other words, they’re telling you things that you already know about your business and you’re paying them a lot of money for them to come in, but you’re also giving them the data and the information about your business, and so the consultants make out pretty well.  

But consultants can be valuable if you have a specific problem, a well-defined problem, that you cannot solve. And if they’re industry experts and you bring them in, they can be worth their weight in gold.  

Then there are the white coats. Now the white coats are the subject matter experts who come into your organization, who tell everybody exactly what you’ve been telling your organization for years, but because they are recognized as experts in the industry, your team listens to them more than they listen to you. Sometimes you need to bring in the white coat, the subject matter expert, the person who wrote the book, to convince your team why you need to change your systems.  

I’ve had to do this with various parts of the business, not because I didn’t know what I was doing, but to validate that I knew what I was doing. Sometimes I look back and I think, man, I’m such a horrible leader. I can’t get my team to do what I know is the right thing to do. But the reality was they just couldn’t hear it from me. They had to hear it from someone else. And sometimes it’s just the white coats are better communicators than you are, but there’s value in that. But just understand that when you pay someone a lot of money to come in and they teach the exact same thing you’ve been trying to teach your organization, it can be highly frustrating.  

Now, let’s get into the charlatans. The charlatans are those fraudsters that wrote a book about something that they never did. Their greatest accomplishment is running their consultancy or running their coaching business. They’ve never actually built the organization they talk about. It’s simply made up in their head, and so they talk about all these methods that should work for you. And the reality is, they’ve only actually done that in consulting, they’ve never built a business, they’ve never built the nonprofit organization, they’ve never built the thing that they are telling you to build and they’re taking you step by step to do something that they have never done.   

They sell you a dream. They solve problems that don’t exist, and you happily pay it because you believe that they’re helping. And often the way you can detect them is that they like to use the Socratic method. Now, when I went through law school, I became very familiar with the Socratic method. The Socratic method is the method by which a professor will ask a question and then get you to give the answer. In other words, the consultant or the coach doesn’t know the answer, but they believe that you have all the answers already inside your head, which, if it was true, you wouldn’t need to hire them. But they question you and you continue to answer the question, and this is the evergreen model of coaching, because there will always be problems in your business and so they can continue to ask you about the problems and then have you solve them. 

Now, I remember a coaching session I had with a coach that I no longer have, in a December several years ago, and for many of you, December is the end of your business year, and there’s a lot of decisions that you have to make. And I had solved all of the big decisions for the year, and then I had the coaching call. And so, I’m talking to this coach, and we spent 90 minutes talking about a problem that didn’t need to be solved.  

At the time, it was the most important problem in my head because I had solved all the other problems. This was the last hanging problem, but it was the least significant. And so we spent 90 minutes talking about it, we came up with the solution, and I’m going to tell you, as of today, three years later, I still have not solved that problem because it wasn’t a big enough problem for me to solve. And yet, because I had a time scheduled with the coach and the coach was asking all these questions and using the Socratic method, we fell into a topic that really didn’t even need to be discussed. The coach wasn’t setting the agenda. The coach was simply manipulating me to set an agenda to set up a problem that I could knock down that required little work from that coach.  

Now, you’re probably asking, but wait a minute, isn’t the coach’s job to ask you the questions? Yes, but they need to be specific and directed. And where I found out that there was a problem was that I was getting the exact same questions from the coach every single month. For almost an entire year, this consultant kept asking me the same questions every single month. And the problem with the questions was, they were without context. They had nothing to do with my top priorities or what was going on in the organization, they were simply questions.  

Here are some of the questions: 

What is your top concern leading up to our call today? 

What is your top priority over the next 90 days?  

What is getting in your way?  

What’s on your agenda for the call?  

What are your biggest challenges since we last spoke?  

What are your biggest wins since we last spoke? 

How can I best serve your team?   

What is your level of confidence with…? and then name the team member, the plan, the initiative.   

Have you shared your plan with your team?   

Provide me progress on all of your important projects.   

Who is likely to be the least successful on your leadership team?  

How are you gauging the capacity of your team?  

How are your leaders gauging the capacity of their teams? 

Now, do these questions sound redundant? Yes, they are. Are they good questions? Yes, they’re great questions, but you don’t need to pay someone a bunch of money to ask you these questions. Why? Because the questions are not specific to anything. If you’re working with a great coach or consultant, they are asking you specific questions to help guide you and to give you answers. If they’re not giving you answers or giving you suggestions, and they’re just asking questions, they’re not really doing anything.  

And I don’t want to discount the importance of good questions, but the good questions need to be specific to solving the problem that you have. Yes, you need to frame the issues. Yes, you need to figure out what problem you are trying to solve. But when a consultant is asking you questions, they need to be specific. In the list I just read, it was all a bunch of garbage. These are all questions that could apply to anybody, any business, anywhere. And in fact, what that consultant did was just cut and paste those questions. 

I was paying a ridiculous amount of money to answer the same questions over and over again. The problem was, I was so stupid I didn’t realize it until several months in when I’m like, wait a minute, these seem to be the same questions. I started going back through my emails and my notes, I’m like, this guy is asking me the same questions every single time and I’m paying him and yet he is giving me no solutions, no real suggestions, all he’s doing is getting me to come up with the answers.  

And look, I get it, there are a lot of people in the coaching industry who will say, “Well, you know, all the answers are really already in your head.” Well, that’s not true. That is completely untrue. The reality is if I want a real coach, I want someone who’s going to coach me to climb Mount Everest, I don’t want someone to ask me a bunch of questions. I want someone to say, “John, we’re going to go through your training plan to climb Mount Everest. And that means you got to get in shape. So we’re going to go through your whole cardiovascular training plan. We’re going to go through all the equipment that you need to buy. I’m going to make sure that you have the best equipment. We’re going to train on how to use that equipment. We’re going to make sure that you have the best team with you and, and how you’re going to select that team to climb Mount Everest. And oh, by the way, because I’m your coach, I’ve climbed Mount Everest before and so I know how to do this.” That’s not what I was getting. I was getting somebody who’s asking me a bunch of questions for the sake of getting me to answer the questions. I wasn’t getting the real coaching.  

Now let me stop my rant about coaches and consultants to talk about some of the best coaching and leadership you received, and that was in the military from individuals who genuinely cared about your success, who wanted to lead you, who wanted to give you a bigger, better future because they wanted to lead. And they wanted to lead not because they wanted to make a lot of money or have a great life; they wanted to lead because they wanted to give back.  

Now compare those leaders to what you see on the internet today. You see the guy next to his private plane and he’s telling this story about how he used to work 80 hours a week and he became a drug addict and an alcoholic, and he got divorced and his life fell apart until he figured out how to work only three hours a week. And now, he’s a multimillionaire, he’s got a private plane, a Ferrari, his wife is a supermodel, and he is making millions of dollars working way less. And if you pay him $5,000 a month, he will teach you that secret. And if you want to work extra hard and if you’re a real baller, if you’re really serious, you’ll pay $25,000 a month to be in the special VIP program where you get even more of the information, where there is high accountability, and you will achieve your results because we show you how to get there. 

Well, they may have a path, but the reality is if you don’t get there, this guru is going to tell you, “Well, the process works, it’s you. You just, you’re just not accountable. You’re just not doing the things that you need to do.” Right? And that’s, that’s all garbage, right. Real leaders understand that they’re responsible for your success. 

And I don’t disagree that some of these coaching programs, they can guarantee that they can show you the path, but they can’t guarantee that you’ll have the discipline to follow it. But you’re in the military, you don’t need to go on their fire walks, you don’t need to break boards with your hands or arrows with your neck. You have done the real thing. You’ve jumped out of airplanes. You’ve done the live fire exercises. Some of you have been in combat. You don’t need these tricks. You don’t need to prove to yourself that you can do the extraordinary. You are extraordinary, but where will your coaching come from? It should come from other veterans, and you shouldn’t have to pay for it. 

Reach out, reach out to fellow veterans, veterans who have been where you want to go. And I would be shocked if that veteran doesn’t reach out and say, I will help you because I would not be where I am today without other veterans who have led the way, who helped me, who said, “John, I’m willing to help because I simply want to give back to the veteran community.” 

After Action Review: 

  1. No matter how high we climb, we all need coaches and mentors.   
  1. Those coaches and mentors do not need to be in your industry.  
  1. There are fellow veterans out there who are willing to help you and to help you for free.  

Three Down:  

  1. There are a lot of great paid coaching programs out there but be wary when someone wants to take your money to give you advice if they will not delve into the specifics with you and help you solve your specific business problems. 
  1. Before you hire a coach, just like hiring anybody, look at their resume. 
  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, especially from your fellow veterans. We should all try to help each other become even more successful. 

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. 

Berry Law

The attorneys at Berry Law are dedicated to helping injured Veterans. With extensive experience working with VA disability claims, Berry Law can help you with your disability appeals.

This material is for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the Firm and the reader, and does not constitute legal advice. Legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and the contents of this blog are not a substitute for legal counsel.

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