As a leader, you have to accept that not all of your team members want what you want for them. In this episode of Veteran Led, John Berry explores how aligning individual dreams with organizational goals leads to stronger, more dedicated teams. Drawing on his experiences, he reflects on military exits and civilian workplace dynamics, emphasizing the importance of knowing why people leave and why others stay. John emphasizes why understanding and supporting your team’s diverse aspirations is key to fostering loyalty, improving retention, and effectively harnessing your team’s potential while ensuring investments align with the organization’s goals.
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 back to Veteran Led. In this episode, we’ll talk about why as a leader, it’s important to understand that some of your best performers don’t want what you want.
Think back to that superstar that you knew in the military that didn’t reenlist. You were shocked. This person was a high performer, they seemed happy, they seemed to be on their way to greatness, and they got out. Did you ever know why? Did you ever know what they did next?
Look, in the civilian world, we conduct exit interviews. We want to know why our team members leave. Do they leave for a better, greater opportunity? Or are they leaving because the culture is toxic, we’re not paying enough, or this is not the environment that they want to continue to work in? What is it about our organization that made them want to leave? Or was it anything about our organization? Did they have other aspirations?
I can think back to when I left the military. Half of the lieutenants in my battalion got out around that time. This was the late 90s, there was a tech boom, headhunters were sending us letters every single week, and most of my friends left for bigger opportunities and more pay. Now, there were those that wanted to stay in for 20 years, and they did, but for most of the lieutenants, they got out.
And while the military pitched us on great futures, so did the private sector. And so we had a choice. I can remember senior leaders telling us their plans for our futures and the great careers that we would have and some of us stayed in. But some of us didn’t. Now, the military was smart about creating bigger and better opportunities. Remember, the pay scale was based on both promotions and time in service so long as you stayed in, you would continually make more money every year and if you were good enough, you would receive promotions, which would allow for greater responsibility.
But most of us didn’t stay in and that’s exactly what the military expected. That’s why the rank structure looks like a pyramid; the higher you climb, the less slots available. Does your organization offer that same future? Are there more promotion opportunities and raises? Do you offer similar opportunities for promotion and guaranteed raises for time and service? Look, even if you do, do you know what your best team members really want? Have you asked them?
There’s a book about a concept called “stay interviews,” written by Richard Finnegan. It talks about having interviews that are not performance-based interviews, but just asking your best performers why they stay in the organization. And the point is that you’re supposed to spend about 80% of your time listening; listening to understand why these team members stay in the organization. When my HR Director first started doing stay interviews, we got a really positive response because our team members really felt like they were being heard and felt like we were expanding their future opportunities because we were listening to what they want.
Now, one thing that we didn’t do well was we kept these anonymous, so we couldn’t take action on some of that feedback because we really didn’t know who it was coming from. For instance, we had one team member that had a specific skill that we were not utilizing and wanted to use that skill, but the problem was it was anonymous, so we didn’t know who that person was.
So over time, we learned that sometimes it’s best not to keep these anonymous so that we can actually learn how to provide those opportunities for our team members because if HR conducts the interview for one of your sections, that section leader who actually has the ability to make the change doesn’t know it’s their person who’s giving that answer, the section leader can’t do anything about it. The section leader has to know what their best team members want. When I say section leader, you can make that first line supervisor. But the bottom line is that your best people will always come from your best people.
The great thing about running a civilian organization is you don’t have the same constraints of the military or the government. You can often give team members the options that they want. And one example, I had a high performer whose husband worked for an extremely successful startup that was growing like crazy, and she wanted to work from Australia for a year. Now, at that time, we didn’t have remote capability, but because we wanted to keep this team member badly, we adopted remote work, and we figured out how to build that capability, and it worked out great. This team member had one of her best years ever.
I had another team member who wanted to be absent for 30 days to go on a humanitarian mission. And I told that team member, I absolutely supported that mission. And the team member did the mission, came back and was happy and felt fulfilled and grateful for the organization to provide that opportunity and come back to work to a place where it wasn’t chaos, but that someone had covered down for them so that they felt comfortable being away from the office for 30 days straight, doing something that was very meaningful to both that person and their entire family.
Now, I had other team members that wanted to learn new skills to help the team and wanted the firm to fund that. And I have done that from time to time. If it will help the team, I’m always interested. Despite our immense power as leaders to help our team members get where they want to go in life and to give them these opportunities, not everyone will want all the opportunities you can offer.
And I can think back to a friend of mine from law school. His name was Tom. He graduated the top of his class, and he received job offers from some of the biggest law firms, but he didn’t take any of them. Instead, he decided to take a job in the public sector where he could work 40 hours a week, and the reason for that was because while he wanted to be a lawyer, he also wanted to play on an arena football team and play in a band that played gigs every single week. And so his idea of happiness was doing multiple things and not being pigeonholed into one job, but to be able to do the things that he wanted to do and unfortunately, the bigger organizations that he went to wouldn’t offer that. They said, no, you know, you have a certain billable hour requirement, and if you don’t meet it, you can’t be here. And he didn’t want that. He wanted to live a different life. And so he didn’t accept those job offers.
Finally, while it is crucially important that we are able to give our team members the future they want in terms of opportunity, pay, experiences; we can’t do it all. And some of them will take advantage of it. We had a team member that was always getting a master’s degree, another degree. This, this individual was collecting degrees like you wouldn’t believe. I think by the time they left the organization they had five or six different degrees that they never used. And they always wanted the organization to pay for those degrees, but those degrees in no way helped the organization.
So it needs to be reciprocal. If we’re going to develop someone, we want to develop them. But that individual needs to be clear on what it is they want so that we can actually help them. Because this poor individual, went from educational degree to educational degree to educational degree and seemed to be a hobbyist and enjoyed the recreation of learning, but really never put it to use and that didn’t help us, and it didn’t help the team member. And the reality is we’re not here to support people’s hobbies. We’re here to support their dreams and to help them achieve those dreams. That’s what leaders do.
Remember, your team is your most valuable resource. The more you know about your best performers, the more of them you can find. And most importantly, the more you know about them, the more you can help them achieve their goals, which will improve your retention.
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