Subscribe to Veteran Led


Episode 38

Episode 38: Challenge, Don't Coddle: How to Attract and Retain Top Talent


Caring for your team means pushing them, not pampering them. In this episode of Veteran Led, John Berry explains how to find the perfect balance between support and accountability. John draws from his time as a young officer to illustrate how leaders that provide excessive amenities can actually undermine motivation and engagement if it replaces real challenges. He’ll teach leaders how to avoid an overemphasis on amenities, strike the right balance between necessities and challenges, and keep teams laser-focused on the mission at hand.


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.

Caring for your team means challenging your team not coddling them. This is some of the best advice I received as a young officer the point was that we don’t need to coddle soldiers we need to challenge them. And if we truly care for their wellbeing and their survival, we will challenge them and we will challenge them daily with meaningful tasks so that they can provide outstanding results that they can be proud of.

One of my favorite stories about General George Patton was when he was leading the 3rd Army across Europe. And he was supposed to travel something like 150 miles in 19 hours to begin fighting the Germans and then fight all the way through. And someone asked General Patton, “How will you maintain the momentum and morale once you get to the Germans?” And General Patton said, “Three ways, I will ensure that they have unlimited ammunition,  that they will have a clean pair of socks, and that every night they will get a hot meal.  Now, these luxuries would ensure that soldiers had confidence that they would be able to continue the fight no matter what because they would not run out of ammunition.

Number two, that they would not get trench foot, that they could change into clean socks every day. And number three, they had a hot meal to look forward to at the end of the day. That is how Patton took care of his men. Now, let’s compare that to modern warfare. I can remember my deployments, and especially my second deployment to Iraq, it seemed the longer we were there, the more luxuries we received.

My second day in country, during my right seat ride, the insurgents blew a water pipe that led from the Euphrates River to Al Asad Air Base. And as part of the mission, we had to secure the water treatment plant right off the Euphrates River, make sure it was cleared, and then ensure that the water flowed back to Al Asad Air Base.

As we were sitting at the dining facility, finishing eating, I was sitting with the company commander and his driver. And the driver asked the commander, Sir, are we going to be out there more than 24 hours? Are we really going to be out there that long?  And the commander looked at his driver and said, maybe.

So the driver got up, he slung his weapon over his back, walked to the big glass refrigerators, grabbed three Red Bulls, which he put in his right cargo pocket, three Red Bulls for his left cargo pocket, took one in his hand, and walked out the defect. Now, within a few weeks, there was a new policy on post that you could not take cans of drinks out of the defect.

And there was a little bit of an uproar about that, but where the real uproar happened was when the army decided to stop buying Red Bull and instead changed it to rip it, rip it, the unofficial drink of war. We all remember the rippets. And that’s it. That’s. You know, it was amazing to me how some, a change that small upset people.

But of course, we all got used to the Rippit and we were happy to have an energy drink. But it was interesting to me at the time to see how the army had provided so much that there was blowback. And to fix it, they decided they were going to bring in Baskin Robbins ice cream. And for a while in the defect, we had five different flavors of Baskin Robbins ice cream.

Did that make the deployment any better? No, not really. Did it make anybody’s mission better? I don’t think so, but it was another creature comfort. It was another luxury. But that luxury did not improve morale. And I have seen that happen in the civilian world over and over again. It doesn’t matter how many nap rooms you have or kegs of beer.

Team members who want to perform don’t come for those amenities. They come because they want a real mission and they want to work with other champions. While there was value in the Army MWR, the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Events,  What soldiers talk about today, what veterans talk about, is not all the MWR events or the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders that came or the band that came to play, but the tough things, the sleeping on the hard ground and then being able to sleep anywhere, going hungry, being in intense physical pain, but continuing the mission.

And these are all things that we’re proud of and we like to talk about after the fact. And the reality is, it seems the more luxuries, We’re provided the more we want and the more unhappy we become in the workspace, if not in the military, in my workspace, we went from a very lean and hungry company to a much more corporate atmosphere.

We wanted to bring in more talent and we thought that we had to do what some of the bigger companies did to attract that big talent. And I think we were wrong. Initially, all we had was some crappy coffee and a few different brands of sodas. By the time we brought in a much more corporate culture, we had five different flavored waters, just about every soda you can imagine, snacks, beer on Fridays.

And it wasn’t just a few beers. It was like 20 different craft beers. So we, Built up this culture where we thought that it would attract great players and make them want to stay. But it did none of that. In fact, the more stuff we provided, the more the requests kept coming. We even stopped having a certain type of bottled water and someone started a petition to bring back that water.

Um, someone asked that we start buying lunches and then they wanted to move to summer hours where we didn’t work on Fridays. It got to the point where we had provided so many perks and so many benefits that the team had lost sight of the mission. And the focus seemed to be, what’s the next benefit or perk we could get?

That money has to come from somewhere, and it was coming from profit, but we couldn’t see any additional true value that it was bringing. Yes, people were happy when we brought the perk in, they were happy, they got that sugar high for maybe a day or a week, but after that, they wanted another one, and another one, and the focus started to drift from the mission, and so we had to, we had to reel it back in.

And so as I started reeling these perks back, I got a lot of pushback, especially from the HR types, who said, you know, this will affect our engagement surveys. But what we found is, as we continue to provide perks, we continued to get lower scores on the engagement surveys and more requests for perks. And we stupidly continued to provide them.

Another way in which we added luxuries that didn’t help the organization was in our award system. We felt we were not awarding or rewarding our team enough and we weren’t recognizing those awards. So we started off doing weekly team awards where at the end of Friday, we would play loud music, hype music, and list team wins.

And then we would recognize one individual with a gift from their celebration survey to honor them for something they did that week that went above and beyond. We also had monthly awards where we had patches for all five of our core values and they were peer nominated. And then we had patches for jury trial wins, appellate wins, and those were all presented red, like award citations in the military once a month.

And the final piece was a Stanley cup size trophy with a 200 bonus for the hero of the month. We also had a quarterly employee of the month who would get a certificate and a 500 check. And we also had five annual top awards for our top performers that had cash prizes attached to them. And yet, when we surveyed the team, 35 percent said we had not adequately awarded and rewarded our team for their performance.

Now, This is one of the problems with anonymous surveys. And for those of you who probably remember the, the command climate survey, I want to talk a little bit about that, right? The one thing I noticed as a commander from the command climate survey was, you could tell how the survey was going to turn out based on whether you were preparing for a deployment, deployed, or you’ve just returned from a deployment.

You could gauge how that survey would turn out because you, you knew that it was where your team members were at, where those soldiers were at in their lives and in their, in their heads at that point. Point of the deployment cycle. Similarly, when we get engagement surveys, we know when the team is going to be more hyped about wins.

And we know when the team is going to be pushing really hard and therefore it could affect the feedback. The problem with these engagement surveys is they are all anonymous. Now, anonymous feedback. can be great. It can teach you trends and it’s worth getting, but it’s limited in its value because the problem with anonymous feedback is you don’t really know whether you’re getting that feedback from your champions, your top performers, or your bottom performers.

So if we look at our award program, where 35 percent of the team is saying, our award program is not rewarding enough people. Well, are those the bottom 35%? Are those the bottom third? Who are not performing and are not changing their behavior and thus not getting recognized. Or is it some of our top performers who don’t feel like they’re being recognized?

Because there’s a big difference in whether our program is effective, right? If our top performers are happy and motivated by it, then it’s working. If our low performers who don’t want to change their behavior, don’t like the award ceremonies, don’t like the rewards because they’re not being recognized.

Well, that’s a different problem. And so I don’t want to change the reward program if I don’t know whose feedback I’m getting. because I want to be able to take action on that feedback. And the reality is that not all feedback is weighed equally. Your high performance feedback is much more important than the low performers.

The saying is that if you tolerate low performance, your high performers will leave. Well, similarly if your high performers are happy with what you’re doing, you do not want to change that. to appease the low performers.  One of my favorite authors is Cy Wakeman. She fixed a problem with a large hospital, a culture problem.

She wrote a book called no ego. And in that she talks, you know, about the dangers of anonymous feedback, but she also talks about how you know whether the feedback is good and whether there’s a problem that needs to be fixed. Whether that morale issue is truly a morale issue. Or maybe it’s something else.

And so, what she did was she, she surveyed, uh, this hospital and she went to the best performing wing and the worst performing wing and she compared the data. In the worst performing wing, they asked, what can we do to raise morale and to give you a better working environment? In the worst performing wing, they wanted in house childcare.

They wanted to leave 15 minutes early every day so they wouldn’t get traffic. They wanted larger break rooms. They wanted more snacks. But when you went to the best performing wing, they wanted one thing. They wanted an additional printer, because they were concerned that the one printer they had, when the ink cartridge would run low, it would blur the printing, which made the charts difficult to read, which would lead to a mistake.

And so, the low performers wanted all the perks. But it was the high performers who wanted simply the tools to do their job. And when I think back to Patton, right, he wanted to make sure that his soldiers had the tools to do their job and that they were well taken care of, but he wasn’t going to coddle them.

He was going to make sure that they had that hot meal to look forward to at the end of the day, but he wasn’t providing them a bunch of cans of Red Bull, right? He wasn’t providing them energy drinks. He wasn’t providing them every type of soda they wanted. He was simply making sure that they were taken care of so that they could complete the mission, that they had the.

adequate tools to do their job and that they had an important mission to complete. And that’s what he did. He went around and raised morale by telling soldiers what they did was important. He told them that every single day. And as a leader, that’s our job to let our teams know that what they do is important to never stop reminding them that what they do matters.

We’re not there to buy them ice cream or to give them time off. Our job is to push them. And while our teams may grumble from time to time, because we are going hard, they understand the value of it. They understand that what they’re doing is making a difference. And to them, the complaining is secondary to the mission.

So, as we’ve always heard, if your soldiers aren’t complaining, there’s a problem. You do hear a little bit of complaining every now and then. But the reality is, when we hear them talk about their accomplishments and light up, right, it’s just like the soldiers will talk about their hard times, right? The hard times they endured.

That’s what we sit around talking to our buddies about. We don’t sit around talking about the five flavors of ice cream that were in al asad, iraq We don’t talk about that because that didn’t matter what mattered is how we did our job What matters is the things we overcome and what matters is our relationships and our buddies to our left and to our right That is what mattered.

So when I see the poor soul in the office next to me who arrives every day at 8 a. m And leaves at 4 30 who knows nothing of suffering or victory  I take pride in how hard our team works. We don’t suffer clock watchers or time vampires who live disgustingly pointless lives. We don’t want people on our team who try to numb their way through life because work is not exciting enough.

We try to provide that excitement. We try to provide that sense of purpose. And as a leader, that’s important. I can remember a soldier who used to always salute me. And instead of saying the unit, you know, the unit saying of the day, whatever it was, he would say,  living the dream, sir. And he was being ironic, right?

He was trying to be humorous, but the reality was he was living the dream and the things that we dream back to Reveille before sunrise, springing out of your bunk, sharing an ice cold shower with 16 other guys and four bars of soap, shaving in the field without gummed up camo stick, getting stuck in your razor, scrounging for MREs, the smell of CLP, you know, that weapon cleaning solution that you use to clean your weapon that you cleaned for several hours, the ringing in your ear from gunfire, and the deep respect you felt for your team and the pride you had in your mission.

You didn’t need any f ing Baskin Robbins ice cream. And rippets were the unofficial drink of war. So remember, caring for your soldiers, just like caring for your team, is about challenging them, not coddling them. The soldiers Just like your team members aren’t doing it for the awards. They’re not doing it for the ice cream.

They’re not doing it for all the drinks that you provide and all the other perks. They’re doing it because they believe in the mission and they believe in you, the leader, but you as the leader must challenge them and not coddle them

After Action Review:

  1. Coddling is not caring.
  2. High performers want challenging jobs. They don’t care about the other benefits. Yes, pay them well, take care of them, but understand they are there because they want to complete an important mission.
  3. Feedback is a gift, but feedback from your high performers is worth a lot more to the organization than feedback from the low performers.

Three Down:

  1. As a leader with limited resources, focus on the tools your team needs to do the job, not the additional luxuries that maybe some of your competitors are offering.
  2. Award systems are great, but don’t cheapen your awards by overdoing it.
  3. If you don’t provide your team with a meaningful and challenging mission, all the perks in the world will not make your team happy.

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.

Subscribe to our newsletter

The Service Connection

Our monthly newsletter features about important and up-to-date veterans' law news, keeping you informed about the changes that matter.

Skip to content