In military operations, windows of advantage can provide a critical edge in combat. In this episode of Veteran Led, John Berry will shed light on the potential pitfalls of unpreparedness and the need for effective management in the face of sudden business success. John will explain the critical importance of maintaining momentum and making intentional decisions to support growth, highlighting the need for leaders to adapt and evolve alongside their organizations.
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 9, Ride the Lightning: Where Leaders are Prepared for Momentum.
Ride the lightning. For those of you that have fired a belt-fed machine gun, you know this is more than just a Metallica song. This is probably something you heard from your drill sergeant or from your platoon sergeant when you had a runaway gun. For those of you who have never fired a machine gun, a runaway gun occurs when you’re firing downrange and all of a sudden, that trigger just locks in and the weapon is automatically firing, and the only way you can stop it from firing is to break the belt. Now, if you have an assistant gunner, they can break the belt for you, but the decision you have to make in that split second is whether you were going to ride the lightning; whether you’re going to keep that weapon on target until all the rounds run out. And that is one of the challenges with momentum that we all face.
Things can seem slow at first, but there will be periods of growth where you have to decide whether you’re going to ride the lightning or break the belt. When this happens, I like to rely on John Maxwell’s law of momentum, which says, “When you have momentum, keep going.’
The one place you never want to lose momentum is on the side of a mountain. When I was a young lieutenant in a training exercise, I can remember I was taking the unit up this mountain, and we were in a wedge formation. And I noticed the back of the formation was suffering, and they were falling back and so I did what I thought it was the right thing; raised the hand, took the knee, right? And everybody knows that means halt. We halted, pulled security, and the leaders came into the center of the formation, “Hey LT, what’s going on?” And I explained my concern about the rear of the formation. And I got an earful from one of the sergeants who said, “Are you kidding me? You’re going to make it twice as hard for us to get to the top of the hill now. You just killed all of our momentum.”
As a leader the last thing you want to do is kill momentum because we work so hard to build momentum. And for leaders, sometimes riding that lightning is tough because it all sounds great until you’re there. And there’s always a runaway growth period in business where things pick up faster than you think, and your psychological impression probably differs from reality. You have to understand that a leader’s vision means nothing if the leader lacks the courage to see that vision through.
Because growth is rarely symmetrical, at times you’ll see that some parts of the business will be growing differently than others. And sometimes that’s okay. For example, if you have a great product or a great service and good sales and marketing, you may grow quickly, even though you may have a mediocre finance team. That’s okay. But you know that eventually you’re going to have to build up that finance team to continue with that rapid growth.
And as a leader, you have to be okay with that asymmetric growth because it’s impossible to grow everything at the same time. And as things break down in the business, it should be more intentional than unintentional. In other words, if you’re riding that momentum, you understand that if you put more money into marketing, the problem you’re going to have, is you’re going to need more salespeople. And then once you have more sales, you’re going to need more operators, you’re going to need more products or people to provide the service. And if you do that, you’re going to need more space to put them, you’re going to need more computers, your IT equipment, and then you’re going to need more financial support, and you’re going to need to be become more sophisticated as you grow to understand what financial leverage you can establish to help you continue to grow.
So, the point is you don’t just wake up one day and start growing incrementally. You have to make decisions about what parts of the business you’re willing to break off first while you ride the lightning on others because you can’t do it all at once.
A great example of this is if you’re a $100,000 company and you want to be a $10 million company, you have to grow 100 times that amount. It’s not all going to happen at once and in fact, it may be just some improvements to your sales and marketing can make most of that growth happen. But the other parts of the business are going to have to catch up or you will crash and burn. And so, once again, you got to keep your eyes on the target, keep the weapon downrange, ride the lightning as long as you can, but at some point, something will probably break. And you as a leader need to be prepared for that. And you need to have the vision, the forethought, and the plan to make sure that when something does break, that you’re ready for it.
I think a lot of the lottery winner problem. We hear this story all the time. Somebody wins the Powerball jackpot and wins $300 million. And a year later, they’re broke, right? And the problem was because even though they became an instant millionaire, I guess with $300 million, with all the taxes taken out, they take the money right away, they’re probably less than a hundred million dollars, but the point is they take that money. They’ve never had that much money before. They don’t know what it’s like to be a millionaire. And so, they spend their money on stupid things, they haven’t grown into that role. The same thing happens with leaders where they get to a point where they didn’t grow along with the organization and now the organization is too big, and they fail because they have not become the leader that the organization needs at that level.
This happens all the time. That leader of the $100,000 company may not be suitable or capable to run the $10 million company, and certainly won’t be able to run the $100 million company, unless that leader has focused on self-development, has focused on education and mentorship, and has grown as the business grows. Because the sad reality is most of your leaders won’t do that.
And as you grow, the people who got you, say from $100,000 to a million dollars, may be the same people who lack the skills to get you from a million dollars to $10 million, and that is the brutal reality. And so, as we ride the lightning, we understand that we are going to lose good team members because they were good enough where we were, but not good enough for where we’re going. And sometimes as leaders, when we see that momentum and we feel that momentum, we want to take them with us. And we want so bad for those leaders to continue to develop and stay on the path with us, but a lot of them choose not to. A lot of them decide that they don’t want to ride the lightning, they want to break the belt, they want out because it becomes too complex, too challenging.
And for some of them, quite simply, no matter how much training and education they have, they just do not have, as my dad would say, they may have the engine, but they don’t have the carburetor. They just don’t have the ability to do it. And that’s okay. That’s part of growth. And as leaders, we understand that the leader who was a great company commander may never see battalion command, or that great platoon sergeant may never become a sergeant major.
One of the problems that leaders face is once the flywheel starts going, they sabotage their growth. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. And for those of you unfamiliar with the flywheel concept, I believe it’s in Jim Collins’s “Good to Great,” but the flywheel is essentially this: your marketing team is delivering a ton of great leads to your sales team, who is closing the sales, who is pushing to your operations, which it may be goods or services, and you’re delivering an unbelievable product or service.
And then the customer is so happy that they’re giving you five star reviews, they’re referring three to five people. And that goes back to marketing. Now, for every dollar you spend on marketing, you’re not just trying to get one client, you’re trying to get three to five clients and you just keep exponentially growing as the wheel goes faster and faster and faster, which is great, but along that way, you’re going to see minor malfunctions and you don’t want the wheel to go so fast that you run out of cash. And so, you as a leader, at some point, are going to have to decide whether I got to ride the lightning or break the belt.
And there are going to be plenty of times when you have to make split-second decisions. In the military, you made a ton of split-second decisions. This is not that time. When it looks like you’re growing too fast, this is why you need mentors, this is why you bring in the key stakeholders, bring in the team, get opinions and slow it down.
So, when you get to that point where the flywheel is turning so fast, you got to bring people in. And I’ve done that. We were a highly entrepreneurial organization, and we were lean and fast, and as we started noticing some problems with our growth, the reality was we had to slow it down and bring in some individuals who were a little bit more corporate, who could help us build for sustainable, long-term growth.
We didn’t stop the machine. The machine kept going, but the flywheel slowed down a little bit and we bulked up a little bit. And when we bulked up our staff, we began to see that there were problems we didn’t even know we had. And that’s okay. As a leader, when you start discovering problems that you didn’t know you had, that’s a good thing because the problems always come out. It’s better to find them than for them to find you.
There is one exception to riding the lightning, and that’s unsafe acts. And within an organization, this really has to be part of the culture. Think about the weapons range. Anybody could yell, “Ceasefire!” and the entire range would go quiet, right? We’d hear people echoing, “Ceasefire! Ceasefire! Ceasefire!” And look, it didn’t matter if it was a private watching his buddy fire, but we would call a ceasefire and that was the culture, that everybody was empowered to stop an unsafe act. And in your organization, it’s the same way where whether it’s something that’s going to destroy the organization or physically hurt somebody, the entire team needs to understand that even though the flywheel may be going and you are riding the lightning, if there is something that’s going to jeopardize the future of the organization or jeopardize the life/limb of a team member, the entire team needs to be empowered to yell, “Ceasefire!”
After Action Review: Number 1. Maintain focus downrange. Maintain focus on your targets. Number 2. Momentum comes fast. Be ready for it. Number 3. Don’t stop just because you’re scared. Courage is doing what you need to do despite being scared.
Three Down: Number 1. Rapid growth creates new problems that you as a leader are going to have to solve. Number 2. Know that the momentum may abruptly halt, and plan for it. Number 3. You, as the leader, will need to become a better leader. Don’t have the lottery winner problem where you’re running a company that you’re not prepared to run because you didn’t do the self-development.
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.
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