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Episode 7

Episode 7: Priorities of Work: Do What is Most Important First. Do it to Standard. Then, and Only Then, do What is Next.


Priority equals discipline plus focus. In this episode of Veteran Led, John Berry explains how strategic decision-making during his time at the patrol base taught him to prioritize tasks based on long-term goals and objectives. John will provide listeners with examples of real-life business that achieved major success by implementing a prioritized work system. By aligning actions with an overarching vision, companies can make informed decisions to drive growth and profitability.


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 7: Priorities of Work. Do what is most important first. Do it to standard and then, and only then, do what is next. 
The first time I heard of priorities of work was in the classroom environment. I didn’t understand how difficult it was to conduct priorities of work until we were running STX lanes, situational training exercise lanes. And at the end of those lanes, we were going to set up a patrol base. It was getting dark, and as we moved into the triangular patrol base and set up our 360 security, all we wanted to do was the rucksack flop; drop the rock, change the socks, eat chow, and go to sleep. But we had to conduct priorities of work and the first priority of work was establishing 360 degree security. This meant we would establish interlocking fields of fire by putting stakes in the ground and drawing sector sketches. We were in placing our crew-served weapons, usually in the corners, drafting range cards, and moving all that information to the center of the patrol base, where the leaders would put it all into one big sketch. Then, and only then, did we have 360 degree security.  
The next priority of work was to improve our fighting position. This meant that one buddy pulled security while the other buddy dug in, usually with our entrenching tool, digging in those 18 inch graves. Then we would move to the next priority, which was usually weapons maintenance. One buddy would pull security while the other buddy cleaned his weapon, then switch. Then we would eat chow, where one buddy ate chow while the other pulled security. And we continued along those priorities of work the entire time that we occupied the patrol base. 
The key to the priorities of work was having the discipline to follow them. One of my favorite civilian examples of priorities of work happened in 1918, when Charles Schwab, who owned Bethlehem Steel, the second largest steel company in the country, contacted Ivy Lee as a consultant and asked Ivy to help him. Ivy Lee told Schwab, “Give me 15 minutes with each of your top leaders and I will advise them, and after 90 days, you pay me the value of that advice.”  
Lee gave Schwab’s leaders the following advice: every day before work, list your top six priorities. Start first with priority number one, do not allow distractions and do not go on to priority number two until priority number one is completed and completed to standard. Once priority one is complete, move on to priority number two and complete priority two to standard. And once it is complete, and only once it is complete, move on to priority number three and so on and so forth until all six priorities are done. At the end of the 90 days, Schwab wrote Lee a check for $25,000, which is today’s money is almost half a million dollars. 
Just like the patrol base, don’t move to the second priority of work until you establish the first priority of work, and it is done to standard. We don’t just say, “Well, we have 360 degree security.” No. We make sure that we have the sector sketches, the range cards, the crew served weapons are in place, we have interlocking fields of fire. Then, and only then, are the leaders comfortable that that task has been accomplished and we move on to the second priority of work. 
It’s the same thing in your business. When we work together as a team and our priorities are aligned, we become much more productive. In fact, quarter after quarter, when we’ve done this at Berry Law, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of growth because we are focused on the primary issues, the things that will drive growth and we budget our calendars accordingly. 
So what does this look like? All right, it may be that from 0800 to 1000, you’re drafting a business plan. You’re taking a break from 1000 to 1030, 1030 to 1200, you’re preparing for tomorrow’s podcast. From 1200 to 1300 you’re eating lunch, but you’re also checking emails, texting, returning calls. From 1300 to 1500, you’re calling the top 20 recruits that you want on your team, you’re doing that recruiting visit. From 1500 to 1530, you’re taking a break, text messages, social media, whatever you need to do. And then from 1530 to 1700, you’re reviewing your marketing plan with your CMO and your COO to make sure all the initiatives are funded. 
Now, the point is this, the point is that throughout the day, when you are focused on tasks, you are focused on the task. From that zero 800 to 1000, when you’re working on the business plan, you’re not checking emails, there’s no social media, you’re not taking phone calls, you’re not looking at text messages. This is the time for you to focus and do the deep work.  
Some of the biggest pushback I get is, “But what about emergencies?” What happens when new clients call or what about when old clients complain? How do I get that done? If I’m supposed to be hyperresponsive to my customers and clients, but I’m also supposed to be hyper focused on my work, how do I do both?” And the answer is, you don’t.  
Years ago, I talked to this solopreneur and this man was a fabulous technician. He was amazing. People hired him, but the word on the street was his customer service was terrible. And I asked him, I said, “What do you do when you’re working on a project and you’re hyper focused on that project and the phone’s ringing and you’ve got customers complaining, new people want to hire you?” He said, “John, I shut it down.” “What do you mean you shut it down?” “I shut it down. I don’t respond to phone calls, text messages, email, social media. I just focus and get the work done.” I said, “Well, doesn’t that create problems?” He said, “Oh yeah, when I’m done with a project, I go back to a complete mess and it’s like starting over. And those next days are horrible, and I hate it, but that’s what I do.”  
That solopreneur is no longer in business. The reality is it was too much for him. He couldn’t handle it. And for most of us, it would be that way had we not had the leadership training that we had in the military. And we understand from our time in the military that other people can help us, that we have buddies.  
Unfortunately, even when we have buddy teams, we get in our own way. When there’s a problem, we want to rush in and show leadership by example and solve the problem for the team. Instead of putting a leader or a person between ourself and the problem, we go in and handle the problem. We lose focus. And then those priorities we listed throughout the day, they don’t get done because we’re too busy reacting to problems instead of letting our team respond to those problems. 
So, when we’re serious about being hyper focused and doing that higher level work, we can’t also be focused on solving the problems immediately because we know what happens when problems don’t get solved, they get bigger. With time, complaints grow bigger. We need them to be resolved and we need them to be resolved efficiently and effectively, but without our presence. So, we do this by appointing a team member to resolve those emergencies. And our team member knows our CCIR, or the wake up criteria for which they have to interrupt that critical and precious focus time because we’ve told them the Commander’s Critical Information Requirements.  
You probably remember this. This was where there was a serious incident, or a death and we had to let the leadership team know immediately. The commander dictated what was the “bother me” criteria and what was “you resolve it and report back on it” criteria.  
I have a good example and a bad example of this. The good example was that at a quarterly meeting, when we did a quarterly retreat, we were talking about our gratitude for our team members, and someone brought up that our Chief Technology Officer, about a month prior, found out that the network went down on Friday at 1705. By that Saturday morning at 0800, the network was back up. The CTO worked all night, fixed the problem, didn’t let me know, and I found out about it because the team was patting him on the back. That is the good news story.  
Now, the bad news story came from a leader who exercised less initiative than the CTO. This was the person who ran our intake center. We were a much smaller organization. On a Wednesday, for some reason still unknown to me, our phones flipped over to the answering machine. We didn’t find out about it until Thursday afternoon. The head of the call center then alerted all the teams and very promptly sent out messages about our current clients and made sure that those got to the correct personnel. However, the Intake Manager then proceeded with business as usual on Friday, did not return any of the 30 potential new client calls that were in our voicemail inbox. He just waited till Monday, didn’t tell me, didn’t tell anybody else, and we lost those opportunities. Needless to say, that person was no longer working on our team.  
So, the lesson is that when we set our focus priorities and we assign team members to take responsibility as leaders, we have to ensure they understand what that means. And that means that if there’s a problem on Friday and it’s critical, we’re going to resolve it over the weekend. That may mean that the leader has to work late or work on the weekend to solve the problem. That may mean paying team members to work overtime to solve the problem. That may be lining up some external vendor to help solve the problem. When we empower our leaders to solve those problems, we have to be able to rely on them to solve the problems like the CTO, not like the Intake Manager. 
Now, some of my peers will challenge me and say, “John, if you have all these priorities listed, then you won’t have any white space on your calendar, and you’ll miss opportunities.” And that’s true. I do keep white space on my calendar, but there was a time earlier in my career where I just didn’t have the white space. In fact, if I had six tasks a day, I had six tasks, five days a week, which means I had 30 tasks a week that I wanted to focus on and get done, and I wouldn’t get them all done. So, what would happen if I had six focus tasks a day and I only got through task four before the day was over? Well, in my younger years, I would get five and six done, even if it took me til midnight. As I got older and I was more concerned about spending time with the family, I would stop at four and then I would move five and six to the next day. Now five and six did not necessarily become one and two at the next day. Five and six were usually five and six the next day, but it allowed me to assess those priorities to determine whether they were in fact still priorities. 
I have a favorite quote by Arianna Huffington, which is, “You can complete a project by dropping it.” And sometimes when I fail to get through my six tasks for the day or my focus projects, I would drop the projects I didn’t get to because the next day’s six projects were more important. And I’d ask myself, is this really something I need to focus on or is this something that really doesn’t require my time? And should I kill this task, or should I delegate it? Because this is not a high priority task anymore.  
To understand why we must delegate what is not a high priority task, let’s go back to the patrol base. Who is in the center of the patrol base? It’s usually the platoon leader and the platoon sergeant. What’s the platoon leader doing in the center of the patrol base? Well, the platoon leader’s job is to visualize the battle space and to think about the next operation. While the team is pulling security, the platoon leader is focused on the next operation, the platoon leader is focused on the next movement, how they’re going to move out of the patrol base, where they’re going, what they’re going to do. If the platoon leader is on the line pulling security, looking for the enemy, the platoon leader’s focus is divided. The platoon leader doesn’t have that ability to think through what the future operations will be and how that leader will shape those operations. 
As we think about shaping future operations, as leaders, we have to determine what will move the needle most. And that’s what we need to spend our focus on. Now, how do we do that? Well, there’s a great book by Vietnam Veteran and Fighter Pilot, Jeff Sutherland. It’s called “SCRUM: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time.”  
Now, in SCRUM, Sutherland talks about the OODA loop. Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. And Sutherland said, look, being indecisive will get you killed, but so will being stupid. So, you have to have a rapid system that helps you reprioritize and make decisions. And the more disciplined we are at following those steps and working through the loop, the quicker our decisions become, and more importantly, the more frequently we are assessing whether we are doing the things that are actually moving the needle, whether we were doing more in less time. And it is key that we do the things that we actually need to be doing. And as we use the OODA loop, we continually evaluate our actions and continually make decisions. Because what do leaders do? We decide. And the biggest decisions we have to make as a leader are not only to set our own priorities, but to set the priorities of the organization. As a leader, your priorities will be different than your team members’ priorities, but you will all be working toward the same goal where your priorities are aligned to get a result as a team.  
Now, as a leader, it doesn’t so much matter how you get the team there so long as you get the team there. One of the most difficult lessons for me to learn as a leader is that there’s more than one way to get to your destination. And that’s what makes it so hard to decide on which activities you need to focus on as a leader. But one great piece of advice I got from a mentor who looked at my calendar said, “John, you’ve got too much on your calendar. These focus items you have, this isn’t a two hour focus project. This is a two day focus project.” 
So now during a week, I may only have two, three, four focus projects on my calendar. And that’s it. But those are the things that I go all in on. And as a leader, you have to decide what you personally will do to move the organization upward. And when you make that decision, you have to commit to being great at what you’re doing. And when you commit to the things that are going to grow the organization the most, whether it’s speaking engagements, or recruiting, or doing high level technical work, or producing content, you have to make sure that you are following the most important priority of work, and that is establish and follow a rest plan. 
Every patrol base has a rest plan; we can’t just stay up 24 hours. And remember how it worked. Your buddy would pull security while you slept and vice versa. Even in garrison, we had fire watch where someone was looking out for our security and safety while the rest of the organization slept. You as the leader cannot be looking out for the security and safety the entire time. You have to have the focus, but to have that level of focus that you need to be great, you have to get rest. 
One of the key lessons from Ranger School is get enough food and get enough sleep, or you will make bad decisions. You’re a better leader when you’re well fed, and you’re rested. Your rest plan is key to your success. Why? Because as leaders, we’re supposed to bring the energy. We’re supposed to uplift the organization. We can’t show up in a bad mood. We can’t be having a bad day. We’ve got to show up as the example. And when we lead by example, we show up with a clear head, a rested body, and we are ready to move the organization forward. When we’re tired, when we’re lagging, when we didn’t implement our rest plan, we absolutely fail. 
I think back to over 30 years ago, when I played high school football, we would show up Monday, full pads, full contact. Tuesday, full pads, full contact. Wednesday, full pads, full contact. Thursday, helmet and shoulder pads, a little bit of contact. Friday was game day.  
Then when I got to college, it was a totally different game. In college, it was all about rest and recovery. Monday, we showed up helmets only. Tuesday, full pads, contact. Wednesday, full pads, a little bit of contact. Thursday, helmets only. Friday, walkthroughs. Saturday, game day, we were recovered. We were ready to go. As a leader, you have to take that same approach. You are the tactical athlete. You’re the mental athlete. You’re the million dollar racehorse. Your readiness is either one of the most important assets in the company or one of the greatest liabilities. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re sick because you didn’t have a good rest plan. The team’s going to lose respect for you. 
We’ve all seen the leaders who call in sick, who phoned it in, who go through the motions, who don’t bring the intensity and the energy. And the team isn’t thrilled about following them because the team wants to be with someone who is all in, who is pushing, and you can’t be that person without a rest plan. As leaders, one of our most neglected priorities of work is our rest plan. We’ve got to ensure that we show up for our team. And if we’re not well rested, that doesn’t happen.  
In conclusion, setting priorities of work is not just about setting priorities. It’s about setting the priorities and then having the focus and discipline to see them through to ensure that the priority gets completed to standard. And the priorities of work are not just about you the leader carving out your focus time, it’s ensuring that your subordinates are carving out their focus time so that they can do the things that will move the needle the most for the organization. We all come to a team with different skill sets. As leaders, we have to make sure that we are employing those skill sets in a way that help all of our team members grow and help our team members focus on the things that will make them even better team members. And as they grow, the organization grows. 
After Action Review, Priorities of Work: Start with the first priority, and do not move on to the second priority until you have completed that first priority to standard. Number two, plan out your biggest efforts and your biggest opportunities on your calendar. Make them protected focus time on your calendar. Number three, delegate the emergencies to team members. Let your leaders lead. Let them pull security for you while you move the organization forward.  
Three down: If you can’t explain how it moves the organization forward, don’t do it. Number two, if everything’s a priority, nothing is a priority. And number three, if you’re failing to empower your team, you will be interrupted. You will lose focus and you will not accomplish what you need to accomplish as a leader. 
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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