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Episode 72: Mission First, People Always: Lessons from Bunker Labs Founder, Todd Connor​

Episode 72: Mission First, People Always: Lessons from Bunker Labs Founder, Todd Connor


Where is your greatest opportunity? Many veterans venture into the private sector and find that there are bigger opportunities in the entrepreneurial world. In this episode, we welcome Navy veteran Todd Connor, founder of Bunker Labs and Veterans for All Voters. Todd is a prominent voice in veteran entrepreneurship and in this episode, he shares how military skills power successful civilian ventures and talks about the important social impact work he is doing at The Rustandy Center.​

Transitioning from the military to the civilian world doesn’t need to be hard, but sometimes we need support. Check out how Todd and his team can help you at Bunker Labs.​

America needs our veteran leadership to step up. Check out Veteran for All Voters to learn more.


Todd Connor: And we’ve known this for a long time that you know, people first mission always kind of thing. I’ve said it, but when you really start running businesses and you run teams and you’re pursuing important missions, like you were just daily reminded that it is all about people and good talent, um, can take these so far, even with a bad strategy or a tough market or the flawed thing. Um, and the wrong, uh, people, um, can.

John Berry: Welcome to the Veteran Led podcast, where we talk with leaders who use their military experiences to develop great organizations and continue to serve their communities. Welcome to Veteran Led. Today’s guest is Navy veteran, founder of Bunker Labs and CEO for Veterans for All Voters. Todd Connor. Welcome to the show, Todd.

Todd Connor: Hey, John, great to be with you.

John Berry: How did you go from becoming a naval officer to deciding that you were going to start this huge, what is now a huge project of 35 chapters, 1200 entrepreneurs, Bunker Labs? Yeah.

Todd Connor: John, um, first of all, it’s awesome to be with you and to connect with your audience. And I just appreciate what you do, which is to kind of amplify stories of veterans out leading and doing things in the world. And, um, you know, I, to be honest, uh, out here’s what I’ll say in advance of the answer to the question, which is like, how did Bunker Labs come to be? But for every one thing like that, that I think goes and manifests and turns into a big thing, there’s 2 or 3 or four projects in the background that sort of never take flight, you know? And I think I just want to say that because it’s so core to Third Shift Entrepreneur, that at any given moment, I’m kind of stoking a few different ideas. Um, and a lot of them don’t go anywhere, and that’s okay. And that’s sort of like the sandbox that we create for creativity and for exploration of what the market needs or what our society needs, um, or what the veteran community needs. Um, so there’s a lot that’s in the dustbin. But back to the question of Bunker Labs. It really was born out of my own need, which was 2014. Um, having started a business myself in the professional services sector, um, feeling like, man, I could really benefit from the camaraderie and the community of other people that were starting businesses, particularly businesses that weren’t venture backed.

Todd Connor: Um, because there’s kind of accelerator programs for stuff like that. But, I mean, I wasn’t doing anything in like, you know, really niche like material sciences or app based, you know, food delivery services or whatever. Um, I didn’t need sort of a technical support system per se, but I was like, I’m out here in Chicago with the professional services business, and I would love the camaraderie of other veterans. Around the same time, uh, we Chicago was just launching its big incubator, 1871. And, um, and I had some relationships with folks through politics and other things that I’m interested in. And I said, this is a really interesting thing that we’re building here in Chicago. How do we plug veterans into it? Um, and is there an opportunity, is there a need? And they kind of looked at me and said, well, you know, why don’t you sort of explore that and see if there’s something there? So, so it really was just these kind of doors open and you think, okay, maybe there’s something here. It’s a question that turns into doing something. And we organized our first. It was just a simple meetup. We called it, um, the Brain Trust. And we said, put out the call. Me and a couple co-founders, Brandon Bodor, Tom, Dave. We said, you know, veterans are interested in starting businesses.

Todd Connor: Or if you have started a business, come on out. You know, meet us on Thursday at 9 AM. We’re just going to have coffee and talk about what we’re doing in our first one, I think had like 20 people. Um, and it was great. And the energy was just immediate and it was magical. And after running programming for about six months, we got calls from people in other cities and Austin and Omaha and other places, you know, uh, saying, hey, this is cool. What you guys do in Chicago. We want to do something similar in our in our city. And, um, it just was really market driven, you know, and I think that’s the right way to think about business is just where’s the market pulling you? Obviously you’ve got a passion for it. Um, but the grit we didn’t start out, I certainly didn’t start out thinking we’re going to build a national nonprofit. Uh, we’re trying we’re going to try to be in 30 cities or whatever. Uh, it just was like, we’re meeting a need. People continue to come back because they’re finding value in this. Let’s get smart about what it could look like the next time. How does it get better? How do we put together a smart organization? How do we, you know, pull the team together? All those kind of things need to happen. How do we raise money? Because a 501c3 organization.

Todd Connor: Um, but it was really the community that expanded it. And specifically veterans, you know, I mean, I talk to other leaders who are in the entrepreneurship space. They want to help other communities, and they ask for kind of the playbook on how we did that with Bunker Labs. And I said, you know, part of this is I just don’t think you can capture like we can as veterans with. Our community, the goodwill of of that network. I mean, it is extremely powerful. I mean, you can have a really smart expansion plan. But ultimately, what made Bunker’s scale and succeed was that veterans or military spouses were on the ground in Austin, in Madison, Wisconsin, and, you know, San Francisco. And they made it happen. They they took ownership of the local chapter, and it was entirely the local leaders. Um, that really made made the the federated model kind of work. And, and I don’t know, that’s a special thing that we have as a veteran community. There’s there’s a lot of liabilities. We carry our challenges we have, but we have some very, uh, powerful, um, connectivity amongst our network as well. That I think is a privilege that other communities can’t access. And I think that’s been a big part of, you know, the Bunker Labs growth story and everything that that came subsequently.

John Berry: Well, and you have also. Partnered with some powerful institutions as well Syracuse University, JPMorgan Chase. How did you get those bigger partners involved? Was this something that you had to establish a real presence before you could even get your foot in the door, or was this something that you had planned from the beginning?

Todd Connor: Yeah, it’s a great question. You need, uh, you need customers. And if you’re a nonprofit, you know, those customers give to you as charitable foundations or as individuals. Um, so you need customers and, and or donors. Um, and, you know, some of these, some entrepreneurs are paralyzed by the idea that it’s like a chicken versus an egg, like, well, I can’t build the program until you get the funding, and I can’t get the funding until I build the program. And I’m and I tell people just flatly, I’m like, it’s not a it’s not a chicken and an egg. You, the entrepreneur, always go first 100% of the time. You go first and put your own skin in the game. Um, whether that’s financial or whatever, you know? But I was like, we needed to demonstrate to ourselves that we could get 30, 40, 100 veterans in a room who are starting businesses. But as soon as we could do that, one of the first conversations we had was with JPMorgan Chase, uh, where we brought them in and said, hey, look at what we’re doing here. And it I absolutely think it’s show and tell. Um, uh, you know, eliminate the word sales and replace it with show and tell. If you don’t have something to show and tell, then it’s like the sales pitch kind of falls flat. So I always tell people that are starting businesses, coaching them, I have this great idea. I’m like, who’s the pitch man? That doesn’t that isn’t you or doesn’t work for you.

Todd Connor: That is a customer of yours that can call me and say, this is I needed this. This was amazing. And therefore you should look at it, you know, so it’s like changing the whole sales paradigm. So I think we had to build something that was real, um, have actual bodies in the room, take photos of that, have them actually say this really helped me. I actually really needed this track. Actual success of their businesses and what came next. Um, and then if you can do that, if you can build that, um, organizations like JPMorgan Chase, uh, and USAA, Comcast Schultz and others, Kauffman Foundation, they absolutely want to sort of support that, um, and be interested in that and get to know those entrepreneurs as well. And it’s a community that they sort of want to support and alliance their strategy. Um, but we had to build a real thing. Um, and I think that continues to be true. You know, you’re only I people always ask me like, how’s it going at Bunker Labs? I’m like, don’t ask me. Ask John Berry, who’s in CEO Circle. We are as good as our last interaction with the veteran who is trying to start a business. And if that has been a positive interaction, then we’re doing good. If that has not been a positive interaction, then we’re falling short. Um, and I think the same thing is true with funders. They ought to feel they have different things that they care about. Uh, but funders ought to feel like we this is a solid investment.

Todd Connor: And we actually got more out, you know, from a sense of, like, intrinsic value or impact. Then we put in monetarily, you know, that was, to me at least, always, uh, kind of the standard that we wanted to operate by. Um, and then, you know, some of this is just timing, too. I mean, I think entrepreneurship became a very hot conversation in 2015, 2014, 2015. We were building a platform for a community that was sort of underserved, underrepresented in that time in that way, at a time in which that conversation, both support for veterans as well as support for entrepreneurship, was kind of coming online. So I think a lot of this, too, is, uh, I don’t say it’s luck, but but timing is something that does live beyond our control. I always tell people Bill Gates ten years earlier or Bill Gates ten years later, isn’t Bill Gates the founder of Microsoft? I mean, he’s probably successful. He’s probably he’s he’s obviously smart. That doesn’t change. Uh, but the timing of these things is really relevant as well. So I think smart entrepreneurs, they don’t get lucky, but they do have a sense of like, does the timing align to the moment of the thing that we’re trying to build? And I think for Bunker Labs and with our donors and key sponsors, um, and folks like IBM, the answer was like, yeah, this is the right time to kind of come together on this.

John Berry: Well, that that is such a dense, uh, answer because there’s so many, so many pieces. So that’s just like. Third Shift Entrepreneur, where you’re reading through it and in the storyline, there’s just piece after piece after piece and even here, show and tell, right? You can’t just tell somebody, show them the proof. And a lot of entrepreneurs hate the word sales, especially coming from the military and in the legal industry. Oh, sales is dirty. You should never have to sell anything. It should sell itself, you know. Oh, we don’t sell. But sales is so important because we do sales in everything that we do. And so whether you’re selling the team on the vision or whatever. And so I love the show and tell because it isn’t about your selling, you’re educating them. But if you just tell them so what you got to show them proof, right? Show them it works and show them that interest. And what you’ve done with Bunker Labs. I think a lot of Non-veterans probably don’t see this, but for me it was really finding the tribe

At what point did you know that you had built something special that this was going to go places?

Todd Connor: Man, um, I appreciate hearing that, first of all. And, uh, and it’s a credit to a lot of people, um, especially the community. I mean, that’s the powerful thing about the veteran community is when you instigate, like, our job is to build the scaffolding, but then the people fill it in and that connectivity is just invaluable. And I think, you know, we early days, I mean, I’d go to another city where I had not stepped foot and had only talked on the phone with the volunteer leaders in that city, and they would put together something and 80 people would show up and I would just be like, blown away and, uh, traveling around the country, going to pitch competitions and seeing entrepreneurs stepping forward and, and, um, just the depth of the humanity, the depth of the community, people feeling like I didn’t know I needed it until I got it. And I heard that just I mean, literally hundreds of times. Um, yeah. You realize, like, the power of a community is so much bigger and deeper than just sort of anything that feels transactional. And I, um, I had a lot of evidence of that early on, continuing to, you know, and through CEO circle and other programs that we run and the world changes and things shift, and the market’s going to sort of adapt.

Todd Connor: And I’m a big believer in not necessarily disruption, but that like change is good and innovation is good. And I love that there are other entrepreneurship organizations that are emerging and starting. And um, because it’s always been about what the community needs. And this the community gets younger and as I get older, like community needs new things. They need leaders that are more authentic and connected to that experience to help design those things. And so I view all that as sort of healthy and evolutionary. Um, but what will never go away is the need for really anyone, but particularly in the military community, to have a sense of community. Um, and I think, um, the veteran community is so hungry for that. They’re so thirsty for that when they get it, they never want to let go. And I think that’s a that’s a special thing that we have.

John Berry: Well, and to buttress your answer with your credibility, which is you run the Social Impact Lab at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. So, what is the social Impact Lab? And is this what we’re talking about? The social impact of organizations such as Bunker Labs? Or is this is this a much broader concept?

Todd Connor: So this is, uh, the Rustandy center of the University of Chicago, which I don’t run, but I’m, uh, executive in residence. And as he said, and I teach some classes at the University of Chicago, what’s interesting is, um, not surprisingly, the veteran community, because I think there’s typically some intrinsic motivation that you want to serve, which is why you joined the military in the first place. Um, but increasingly, even at, like, business schools like the University of Chicago, lots of students are wanting to explore careers beyond what is the typical career coming out of business school, which is like consulting or working in finance. Increasingly, a lot of the students want to start nonprofits. They want to serve in the government. They want to address a social impact challenge, you know, hunger or something. I mean, and it’s looking differently than just a traditional sort of consulting job or finance job or typical kind of 9 to 5 job. So, um, I’m there helping kind of design and execute programs for students to step into non-traditional careers. I mean, I graduated with an MBA, um, and went into consulting for a year, but then I quit and I started my own business, and I really felt like I was totally out on a limb. Arguably, it was irresponsible, but I knew intrinsically that, um, my future destiny was sort of not in what I was doing, and I didn’t really know how to get there.

Todd Connor: And so I did what I did. I’ll recommend, which is why I wrote a book called Third Shift Entrepreneur. I quit. Uh, I quit a job, and then I moved back to Chicago and I started things. Um, and Third Shift Entrepreneur is all about de-risking that process. That quitting is not the same. Starting. In fact, you should start before you quit. I quit in order to start, which is how a lot of us think about it. But it’s I think it’s actually backwards. Um, and I made a career for myself that was really built around who I thought I was when I cared about what I wanted to do, who I wanted to serve, I wanted to explore special projects. I wanted to sort of build what is, you know, now we talk about as a portfolio career. I didn’t know it as that at the time. That didn’t I don’t think it was a term, but I just I knew I wanted to continue to serve. I wanted to do work that was connected for me. I wanted to be a little bit more entrepreneurial. I didn’t know how to put those things together. Uh, other than quitting and moving back to Chicago and trying to figure it out. Now there’s a lot more sophistication about how that can happen. Um, and so I’m at the university trying to kind of help codify those career paths and explain that more help normalize that more build pathways for students to, uh, to go and, and step into addressing important challenges.

Todd Connor: Because, you know, one of the things I tell students at the University of Chicago is, hey, you know, congratulations, you’ve made it to, you know, I’ll say the leading, you know, business school in, in the world. Um, and, um, I want to make sure that the best and brightest minds coming out of the top institutions of this country are not just dedicated to business. I want them dedicated to ensuring America remains healthy and strong, ensuring that we solve important challenges like educational challenges and health care challenges. I want them, uh, going back to the communities from which they come and finding ways to be leaders within those communities, which is the challenge I give to the Armed Forces group at University of Chicago, is like, look, you guys need to turn around and go lead back in the veteran community. You have a responsibility to that. It’s not just about your next consulting job. So I that is something that I’m sort of an evangelist for. Is that we’ve got to make sure that the best and brightest minds are not just sort of reverted into business or venture capital, but, uh, but also solving important societal challenges and serving the communities that they come from.

John Berry: And that’s the but also because you’ve been able to do all these things because you have a portfolio. And so tell us what’s in that portfolio and how that works, like, how is it that you can afford to be the CEO of or the founder of Bunker Labs, the CEO of Veterans for All Voters? It seems like you’re doing all your passion projects, and you have all these other things going on, and you’re able to just manage all of it like a, like a good military officer. But but tell us about the portfolio and how that works.

Todd Connor: Yeah, I mean, the portfolio, it’s interesting because I don’t have um, uh, I don’t want to say I don’t have an ego. I don’t have a lot of ego around this stuff. You know, I’ve always had a view that, like Bunker Labs, I want to be helpful to the things where I can offer a unique contribution. And when I have made that unique contribution, I feel like it can be time for me to move on and someone else can can fill in, you know, um, sometimes you see in the veteran community or other things where people kind of build an empire for themselves. I’ve never been interested in doing that. I’ve never been interested in just I want to serve. And if I can play a role to build an organization, then I will do that and then I. But I’m then also happy to move on and transition leadership and like, help other people step in and fill in. I think it’s also a test of durability. You know, if a project can’t live without you, then it’s it’s maybe because it’s become too much about you or because you haven’t built an organization that can be sustainable beyond you. So I really I think it’s important to me, my ego rests on the idea that I can move on and the thing can still be successful. I mean, that’s ultimately sort of what I want. So, um, yeah. So with Bunker Labs, we had, you know, Blake Hogan took over as CEO, and that was a planned process.

Todd Connor: And I just adopted a posture of like, call me when you need me, and I’m happy to come back, and I want to come back because I’m always going to be a member of the community, and I want to. But I’m okay to give differently, and I don’t want any special treatment for that, or I don’t want it to feel deferential. I want I just have full faith and confidence that the veteran community can fill in and have fresh new ideas. And so I’ve kind of modeled that with several things. I’ve started, uh, the Collective Academy, which is the leadership, that development business. I started back in 2009, a long time ago, but I transitioned it to a woman that I thought, uh, Emily Drake, that really just take it to the next level. And I thought, this is perfect. I’ll still come back and call me, but you’re in charge. And, uh, transitioned ownership of the business to her. We did the same thing with Bunker Labs. I’ve done similar things with the boutique business, uh, bed and breakfast that we owned in Indiana. Just got it to a place and then transitioned it, sold it, and moved on. And Veterans for All Voters is really sort of the latest project, um, where I see an opportunity and a need for veterans to step into the political situation, which is really.

Todd Connor: Messy and participate in helping restore it not in partisan ways, but in sort of productive ways, you know. Um, and so I think for me, John, it’s just finding something that is where I think I can add value in a moment. And sometimes I try to add value and it’s like, you know, the market. I go back to that original place, the markets, like, we’re good. We don’t need you. Uh, okay. I’ve run for office, I’ve lost. And it’s sort of a market signal like, this isn’t where we need your contribution. And, you know, you kind of lick your wounds, but then you figure out, okay, well, then where where can I be helpful? And so for me, the guiding ethos has been not this kind of not trying to create some like master narrative arc for myself, but really just say in any given season of life, where am I situated? How can I be helpful? And and then what is strategic based on the networks? I’ve got the expertise. I hold this the need that I’m seeing, whether it’s in the veteran community, whether it’s hyper localized in Northwest Indiana, whether it’s, um, whether it’s national in scope around like what I see is the, you know, the, the binary nature of our, of our political system. So I think it’s like leading with that curiosity and then asking yourself the set of questions, which is like, how can I be helpful in this moment? And then offering, you know, bundling that together and kind of offering it.

Todd Connor: And sometimes that’s really, you know, what we would witness externally as successful, which is it grows, it scales, it works. And then sometimes it’s sort of is like, you know, an experimental, a trial balloon that I float and the market’s like, it’s not where, where you’re needed. So, um, that’s how I’ve approached it. And I try to stay engaged with everything I’ve done previously because it’s things that I’m proud of. But I try to also be deferential to the leaders that follow me and say, you know, the last thing we need is and I think the military culture is good at this. You know, people know how to leave a command and say, I was the commanding officer of this thing. And then I got a new assignment, and I’m going to be totally deferential and respectful of the new leadership. It’s not always perfect, but I think generally that’s modeled and that’s culturally normed in the military. And, um, and then a lot of civilian sectors, we see people who just cannot exit stage left like, and give others the space to fill in. And I don’t ever want to be that kind of a leader. I always want to, you know, hope that the people that come after me are, are better and are better equipped and get the opportunity that, um, that we’ve been privileged to have.

John Berry: Yeah. To use an Army doctrinal term, we call that a choke point where it’s that one person, right, is the limit on the growth. And we would say that when the commander’s gone, that’s when we know whether he’s an effective leader, because if the organization runs just as well, if not better without him, then he has built a strong, durable organization. And if it falls apart, we know that, you know, the commander was holding this thing together and not really building his leaders so totally, completely. Yeah. What you’re doing is something that I think we all strive to do, but then we get out of the military, and we get into this business that is our passion, that is our livelihood, that we’re pouring everything into because we need that team, we need that mission. And then to be able to get our fingerprints all over it, the fingerprints of success are all there. And then and then we just walk away. Right. And it’s and it’s and it’s, you know, what we’ve done now is, has become less relevant to the mission, the accomplishment of the mission. We were a part of it, and now we’re not a part of it. And so it’s that letting go and it’s, you know, you hear about this. I had the former SEAC John Wayne Troxell on here and he talked about people retiring after 30 something years and then living in their museum. And I think that’s true for a lot of entrepreneurs. They build something and it’s like, man, like this is so great. And I just I don’t want to leave it this. I poured my heart and soul into this, but it seems like the great ones always have 5 or 6 other things going on. Uh, or, you know, it’s their skunkworks project or something else. So how do you get to the point where you can just I mean, obviously you’re very passionate about all of these projects and the impact that they have. How do you stay connected without it suffocating new leadership? Yeah.

Todd Connor: Yeah, it’s it’s a great question. I mean, and I looked at, uh, the museum concepts, I’m going to think about that. Um, because it gets into who I admire and some people that I think can really put their egos aside. Those are the leaders that I really admire the most. They recognize when their time has passed, they just move on and that’s it. And they’re happy to start over, and they have the confidence to think that they can start over. Um, to your point, I think, uh, I try to stay pretty mindful of where I’m needed. And I’m, I mean, specific question of like, if you’ve left an organization that you started, uh, try to really it’s not perfect. I mean, I screwed this up, but I try to maintain trust, open communication, and then adopt a policy of, you call me, you know, like, I won’t call you. I won’t if you want to ask my opinion. And, you know, you call me because it’s not helpful to be someone that has, um, been there, done that, and then you just. Sort of are showing up with tons of opinions about how it used to be different or better, or something else, or oh, you gotta be looking at it this way. I think it’s just a respect for leadership. And I think leaders that have been in the hot seat really appreciate, um, uh, that is hard, you know, and that, like, everyone’s gonna have an opinion, but, you know, you weren’t there. Uh, and so I think you want to be deferential. I also think, you know, hopefully you create an environment in which people call you because they do want your perspective.

Todd Connor: You know, I always tell people like, I will, I’ll always offer you a perspective I’ll never offer unsolicited. Um, and then I always, uh, this is how I think about coaching. What good coaching or good therapy for that matter looks like is someone who could offer you a strong opinion, but then be very detached from what you choose to do with it. I might say, John, you know, you ought to do this to to grow your, you know, your law business or this or that, and you might come back to me in a month and say, hey, I heard what you said, and I didn’t do it. I did the opposite. And here’s what happened. And what you want is someone that isn’t like, now I’m offended because you didn’t follow my advice. It’s like, great. I love that you had your own opinion. How did it work out? Because all I care about is your success. So I think a lot of this is just about ego trying to move our ego away from this. I think we’re organizations get sideways is they just lose that bubble or it becomes about a leader’s ego. And, um, I really admire leaders that can, um, come out of having been, you know, successful in one domain and the willingness to start over in a new domain and say, I gotta earn it all over again. But I’m willing to do that, and I’m not. Um, I think the people that find themselves stuck are those that aren’t willing to do that reinvention. And, uh, and then it’s hard for them to engage in the world because they want every interaction to be like, you know, reaffirm the significance of what they did sometime previously.

Todd Connor: And I, I don’t want to be that kind of leader. There’s a tension with that. But I want to be the kind of person that can show up when I’m 75 years old and say, hey, I’m here to volunteer and give me the job that no one else wants to do, because that’s the job that’s needed. And in time, I’ll figure out how to add my own value. But, um, uh, not not through rest on your laurels or think I’m owed something because of something that I did. You know, in a previous chapter, I think the fun of life is, uh, is getting to write new chapters every time I get to explore a new chapter, I’m grateful for it. And sometimes I scale up. Sometimes, you know, when I left Bunker Labs, we had about 35 employees and and veterans for voters is a three person team and I have no qualms about. That’s the contribution I’m here to make right now. And there might be a future chapter that involves enterprise leadership of managing 150,000 employees, you know? So, um, but I think the prevailing question, for me at least, is like, where are you needed now? And, uh, can you put what you’ve got, your assets, your networks, your understanding of things, your reputation and so forth to be of service to people? Um, and that’s at least how I try to, you know, construct, you know, subsequent chapters in my life.

John Berry: And obviously, you don’t do it all on your own. You do it with a team and you’ve built some amazing teams. How do you choose that leadership team or those leaders that are going to help you build your vision into a reality?

Todd Connor: I’ve got leaders, uh, that have I’ve brought across all of those chapters. Devin Sizer is one that I see every season of life I call her, and I’m like, I got something new for you. Uh, Jamison Iwu, who’s doing our Chief Marketing Officer at, uh, Betty’s followers and then friends. Friends that carry you. I know France Hong was on the show, and, you know, it’s like there’s these people like Craig Cummings and France Hong and Emily McMahon and people that we have. You know, we’ve lived alongside each other in multiple identities. And so I really believe that, uh, I always want to want to try to center a friendship, um, brotherly love and I mean brotherly in a non-gendered sense, like, you know, men and women, um, who, uh, we really love each other. And I think if that’s true, then, like, you find ways to engage in future chapters or support what they’re doing, or they might come back and support what you’re doing. Um, and I just increasingly, you know, it sounds pithy, and we’ve known this for a long time that, you know, people first mission always kind of thing. I’ve said it, but when you really start running businesses and you run teams and you’re pursuing important missions, like you were just daily reminded that it is all about people and good talent, um, can take these so far, even with a bad strategy or a tough market or the flawed thing, um, and the wrong, uh, people, um, can, you know, even if it’s the right strategy and the right, you know, market and the right thing. So I just I’m a big believer in talent, in people.

Todd Connor: And for me, Jamie Dimon actually said this at one of, uh, CEO Circle Fly and said, I don’t think you were maybe I think this is the year prior to your participation John. But, um, you know, he was like hiring. For smart people and I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but this is what I recall. He said, yeah, you’re hiring all these, like, brilliant people and then, like, you know, they I just realized, like, I don’t like half of them, you know, and they’re like having friction with their team and then like, I’m having to exit them and it’s expensive and it’s painful and it’s hard. He’s like, so I just got to the point where I just was like, I’m going to surround myself with people that I enjoy working with. And I once got accused of like, you know, some oh, uh, it’s kind of funny retrospect, but when she’s like, you know, you’re not you don’t you don’t exude leadership. You’re all about like, you just want people to like you. And I heard the point. It kind of stung. And I was like, yeah, that might be right, you know? But it’s like the older I get, the more I’m just kind of about like, aw shit. I, I’ve seen projects just flame out because people, people’s egos got in the way, you know? So I think it’s about the right people. And then the question is who are the right people? I think it’s people you enjoy working with. Um, it’s people that you trust and it’s people that are competent. I think, um, if you can find those three things in anyone, I like working with them, which is like, I would enjoy.

Todd Connor: I’d say like, you know, the road trip test. I could sit in a car with this person for four hours. Um, that’s a big thing. The second is I trust them, which is, um, they are there’s integrity there. You know, uh, they’re going to just make it right. They’re going to do the right thing. They’re not going to take shortcuts. They’re not, you know, like their integrity is like of the highest nature. Um, and they’re going to do the right thing, uh, and do what they say. And then the third is like, if they can be really competent, which is like they can I think of this in a technical sense, like they can really put together a thoughtful email. They can do it quickly. They can like, make like they can get the budget right. They can put the air table together. You know, they can just like technically do these things quickly. Um, I think if you find all three of those, that person is like worth every penny you can give them. Um, because a lot of people I see are technically competent, but you don’t really want to be in a car with them for four hours or, um, they’re really competent. You really like them, but they’re you’re not sure they’re going to sort of do the right thing in all situations. They might try to cut corners. Um, so I think when you can find all three in the person, um, it’s gold. And like, you never want to let them go.

John Berry: Do you look for someone who’s going to challenge you and challenge the way that you think?

Todd Connor: Uh, yeah. No, I mean, I think you got to have people that challenge you. And, I mean, there’s challenging for the sake of challenging and that can be irritating or, you know, it’s like I always tell people, um, you know, if you don’t like the dinner reservation I had, you know, actually, this is like what I tell my husband, but it’s like, okay, I’m willing to take make a plan. If you don’t like the plan, that’s totally cool. You got to build another plan, you know? So it’s like there has to be work to kind of go beyond because opinions are cheap. And, um, what you don’t want is a leadership team that thinks their job is to just have opinions. It’s like, I need you to have opinions and then do the work commensurate with the opinion. Um, but you have to have people that see it differently and have the confidence, uh, because of their own expertise or lived experience, to say I don’t see it the same way. Um, and to have that conversation and then to pick a route and then the team to kind of like. Move, move on. You know, it’s like this is the path that we’re going, I think, to your point, France, I love that quote, which is and I think he told me as, um, I’m not here to be right. I’m here to get it right.

Todd Connor: No, I no, I don’t think I got it exactly right either, but something along that it’s very clever the way he says it. And that’s exactly you know, sometimes you can see leaders who it’s like it’s just really around their ego and their. And it’s like, what we always want to do is you want to center any team meeting around like, well, what are we trying to solve for? Because if it just devolves to like, well, John thinks this and Todd thinks this, like, what is that about? That’s just about two guys and their ego. If it’s like, hey, this is what we’re trying to solve for now, we can have a different conversation about, you know, the thing that we need to get to. And so you need people that are really competent and therefore have a point of view, um, and can tussle on the fact, the fact pattern, not so much what they think. It’s like, who cares what I think? What we care about is what’s going on, what we’re trying to solve for, um, and, and then create an environment in which that gets role modeled. And then other people feel the freedom to do the same thing. Um, but back to the people that have, uh, I’ve brought with me on other adventures, like Devin. She’s just the first one to tell me it. She’s stylistically like the opposite of me, um, and will tell me that I’m wrong.

Todd Connor: And, um, is is also like on the extraversion and introversion scale. Like, we’re just all so different in that way. So having those people around you that you know, you need, um, I think is critical. And it also makes for a more fun experience. And the data on this is just really clear around diversity of teams and styles and, and perspectives. Um, it’s really it’s really important. And I’ve, I’ve seen it uh, in the group experience. And we see it in CEO circle where it’s like the more diversity of an experience people are coming together with, it’s like the more interesting it becomes because you get dimensions that you can’t otherwise get. So, um, yeah, you gotta have a team that’s willing to tell you that you have no clues. And, um, you know, and is is able to push your thinking and then and then is able to, you know, come to a point of view collectively and move on and know that you’re not. It’s like you don’t it’s not about trying to die on every hill. It’s just having a posture of like, yeah, let’s get curious about what could be better and and always wanting to be better, um, and not for yourself, but for the thing that you’re trying to solve, right? The customer you’re trying to serve, always making it better for them.

John Berry: I had a quote. I want to share this because I got calibrated very early in my naval officer career from, uh, by my captain Simon, who had a ton of respect for. But I went to him and I was complaining about something. I said, you know, sir, something about the guys in the division. I was like, look, they don’t like this. This is the problem. Da da da da da da. And I just was like, throwing up problems, you know, and, uh, and, like. And the implied thing was like. And it’s your job, sir, to solve these problems. And he just looked at me and he goes, permission granted. And I was like, what do you mean, permission granted? Permission granted to go solve all the problems you just identified. Come back next week with a report on like what you did and how you did it. And that was like you, you learn very quickly, like, oh man, I thought I was being clever by throwing out what’s broken. And that that’s like my sole job. And then someone who’s willing to shoulder responsibility. He’s actually going to fix the thing. And, uh, he calibrated me quickly, and then he started holding me accountable. So what happened to all those problems that you identified? What’s the status of them? You know, so it was a great teaching tool, a teaching moment, uh, in my naval career, which served me well, which is like our job. Yeah, it’s cheap seats to just talk about what’s wrong. Especially when you think about intractable problems like politics. And, you know, and I’m not interested in cheap seats. So it’s like, what are you going to do about it? You know, permission granted. Go fix it. You know, we’re an American.

Todd Connor: We have capacity to go solve it in terms of the issue, you know, working styles and stuff like that. I just think the most obvious thing that no one ever does is you talk about it in our weekly meeting. We have a, uh, I think maybe we talk about this. You know, I use the EOS system for a lot of things, and there’s this idea that you can just in a weekly meeting and an L10 meeting, you can actually I do a prompt discussion prompt, which is like, what’s a request for change every week if you just normalize it. Hey, anybody have any requests for change? Hey, John, I know that you, uh, you were enthusiastic. You texted me at 9 p.m.. It it gives me anxiety. And so my ask is, just send that text at 6 a.m.. I love getting that text at 6 a.m., and I like getting it at 9 p.m., you know, so we can just talk about it. And this is where I get back to likability and trust. It’s like, but if I’m deeply offended, then it’s like, then your ego is too much a part of this. So it’s just acknowledging we’re all wired differently. We want to engage differently, and we should become curious about how other people want to work and then try to meet them, you know, halfway or at least flex a little bit to how they want to work, and maybe they can flex back to us in turn, and things can move from being volatile to just, oh, okay. It’s you know, John thought or different. That’s normal. You know, it’s just that it doesn’t have to be a disagreement or a fight. Just, hey, we’re different. He likes it this way. I like it this way.

John Berry: So at your level where you’ve got a lot going on, you’ve had many successes. Where are you finding the mentors? Are these your peers? Are these the team members you’re hiring? Are you learning from your own team or do you are you seeking out mentors that are that are at the next level? The Jamie Diamonds of the world, for instance.

Todd Connor: You know, I, I have a lot of humility. I think that I have so much to learn. I have, you know, operated with a playbook for my life. And I’m not sure it’s entirely sophisticated. I think sometimes I’ve gone it alone when I should have sought mentorship. Um, but I try to find insights from people and, you know, like ways in which I admire them differently. Um, I’ve got mentors that are young 23 year olds. They’re, you know, out there, like with a totally different view about what is possible in the world. And I find inspiration from that. I find inspiration from people like Jamie Diamond that have a global perspective and things that are so far beyond me, I, I find inspiration from people that are, you know, uh, single parents raising families with, you know, in the hardest and most challenging of circumstances. And, and like, how is that possible? You know, so I try to find inspiration and mentorship from people that are probably not like, you know, the time 100 list or not, the people that you would sort of, you know, think obviously, um, but I think it’s an area I don’t think I do enough around. I think I could do a better job of seeking out mentorship. I think when I tell when I tell entrepreneurs and I don’t and I do, I actually do. This is probably true for me, but I try to find people that are like three years ahead. And the thing that I’m trying to do, um, not just like kind of the global because it’s one thing to sort of go and say like, well, I admire the United States or Jamie Diamond or Oprah Winfrey, and those are kind of, you know, obvious folks, but maybe not relatable to the situation we’re in.

Todd Connor: I try to find people that, um, are maybe three years ahead of me, and I look at the choices that they’ve made, and if they’ve achieved success and the things that they’re trying to do, then I become curious about that. Um, and so I’d say that’s sort of like peer mentorship, you know, like looking at people that I say, wow, I’m really impressed that John has put together this podcast for a professional. I wonder if it’s something I should be doing. Um, and the way in which he does it. Thoughtful. He’s got a really strong team around him. I wonder how he does that. So it’s a lot of curiosity, and it’s typically peers to those that are a little bit advanced beyond where I am, you know, like the place I’m trying to get the next three years, uh, for the impact that they’re trying to get. But I’ll tell you, and I also read a lot. I read a lot of history. I just finished a book about, uh, Lincoln’s inauguration in 1860 and finding inspiration from some of the characters that were at play and how they were operating then. Um, and trying to draw parallels because I think, um, I don’t know. I mean, heroes are kind of all around us, and I think sometimes we underweight the moment that we’re in and, and what’s possible. So try not to rely on obvious role models, but try to kind of broaden my, my view of, of looking for kind of figures and stories in my, in my immediate life, but also historically that might, you know, give me some sense of inspiration or direction.

John Berry: This is a great segue into our After Action Review. When we talk about role models, this is where we learn about leadership. So if you have them three examples of great. Great leadership. You don’t have to name names, but examples that you’ve experienced or even read about. And then three examples of horrible leadership.

Todd Connor: Okay. Uh, great. Leadership, uh, is, um, a leader that can admit that they have made decisions that maybe were not right. Um, bad leadership. And I got some of this on my way out of the military. Was, uh, sort of a reflexive, like all the advice I’m going to give you is to affirm my worldview and the choices I’ve made. Um, and I’m not really self-reflective about why I’ve even done those things. Um. Good leadership. Uh, ask more questions. Um, is, like, fundamentally like, good leaders sit in team meetings just listening. Bad leaders assume their job is to do all the talking. I could literally I can be on mute observing a leadership call and tell you right there. Then whether the leader, I think is probably doing the right thing. And it’s like if the leader’s lips are moving the whole time, the team is just like sitting, listening, taking notes. I’m like, this is a a leader. That’s, I think, falling short. Um, so I think it’s fundamentally good leaders have the most context of the thing that’s going on. The only reason you’re going to get the most context is because you’re doing the most listening from the most diverse, you know, people in the room.

Todd Connor: It’s like the, the, the CEO that’s talking to the lowest paid person that shows up in the middle of the night when no one thinks they’re going to show up. It’s all that stuff that is context giving, which gives you, I think, authority and leadership. Uh, and you can’t get there if you think your job is to, like, give all the answers to all the questions. Um, so I think listening um, and then good leaders know when it’s time to make space for the next person. Um, and you might call that mentorship. You also might call that, um, uh, kind of, uh, um, what’s the term for bringing people up? Not just supporting them, but opening doors, sponsorship. You know, sponsorship, um, good leaders lead other leaders in their wake. I think bad leaders, uh, and we see this a lot in politics, uh, selfishly just kind of hang out as long as they can because, um, they can’t imagine a world in which they’re not central to it. And I think good leaders.

John Berry: Can see the military.

Todd Connor: Or the military or the military or sometimes in business, you know, um, so, like, good leaders can, like, know it’s time and they have enough of that. You know, they have enough self-esteem beyond work to be like, I’m gonna be okay, um, I can go do something else. And frankly, I’m happy to start over. Um, I had a great conversation with General George Casey where he retired from the military. Big career there. Four stars, all that. And he was like, you know, I was thinking about how do I, you know, contribute. And he’s like, I decided to be a poll worker. So he’s like, I just I work in my local polls as a coworker. And I just think that those little things like that where it’s like, okay, I can move on and I can live a new life. Um, I do a lot of work with the George Bush Institute, and President Bush is someone I admire because he, you know, he still plays a role and runs the Bush Institute, but he also paints and thinks about other ways to be involved and is like, I don’t need to be, you know, central to the conversation. Other people can do that. And I think, uh, that’s something I admire in leaders is a, you know, a sense of knowing that like, your time has come and your time has gone and find or find a new way to be relevant, and maybe it’s babysitting your grandkids. Maybe it’s volunteering. It’s maybe not. Maybe it’s not wearing a four star uniform with a ton of ribbons, but, like, that’s okay. Um, if you can be, uh, of service to someone else, like, that’s God’s gift to man and go be of service. And there is no expiration date on that. There might be to like your ability to give a keynote speech at a black tie dinner. But if you just want to be in the world and of service, that never expires. So that can be a lifetime pursuit.

John Berry: Well, thank you so much, Todd. This is amazing. Where can veterans learn more about Bunker Labs and or. Veterans for All Voters.

Todd Connor: So Now in partnership with IVMF, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, which acquired Bunker Labs, which is a great partnership in expansion of the mission and then We’re doing election reform. We’ve got volunteers in 48 states. It’s amazing. That’s just in the last two years about and it’s really, it’s a really great thing. It’s the moment it’s needed. Veterans are the leaders that we need showing up, um, to help fix our political system. So, um, yeah, would love to have folks find me there or on LinkedIn. Uh, I’m being consistent on Facebook and Twitter and X and all that stuff. I think it’s like it’s all noise. I’m kind of trying to do something different. So but LinkedIn is great and, uh, happy to jump on a phone call anytime and talk about entrepreneurship, election reform, uh, leadership, life, America. So, John, it’s so been it’s been great being with you. I really appreciate the chance to to be on your show. This is it’s been a great conversation for me.

John Berry: Well and thank you for all that you’ve done for me and all the other veteran CEOs out there. We wouldn’t have had this opportunity without you not just having the vision but seeing it through. So, your leadership is amazing. It’s monumental. What I love about it is you proved the Veteran Led concept that your military service is can be just the beginning, that you can build such a bigger, better future with the basic skills that you pick up in the military. And I absolutely love this and I want you to hit this. I want to end on this. If I come to Todd and I start telling you about all the problems in the organization, the answer is what?

Todd Connor: Permission granted.

John Berry: Thank you for joining us today on Veteran Leder, 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 Leder 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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