Thursday, 24 October 2013

On Being A Soft Shite

Touchy-Feely Alert! This post contains writing about emotions.
I like to be prepared. I’m not good at winging it. That’s why I’ve approached life with obsessive tendencies, and being prepared has served me well.

But I’ve messed up. I’ve missed something, and now I feel lost.

I am most certainly prepared in terms of all the tangible things a person needs to help make a new business work. But despite all my MBA reading on organisational behaviour and leadership, the years spent as a business consultant, and the many projects I’ve worked on involving large teams, the one thing I didn’t consider was this:

How it feels to be the boss.

Just writing that sentence gives me a little bit of vertigo.

I knew it would be this way, but I didn’t expect it to feel this way.

I think ‘isolated’ is as good a word as any to encapsulate how it feels. Of course, I’ve heard the expression it’s lonely at the top, but I didn’t think it would apply to a tiny business like mine. My business card jokingly gives my job title as “Chief Executive Coffee Boy” but I’m hardly overseeing an empire.

I don’t have any solutions, but what I do have is the poor judgement to write about why it feels very isolating to me, and perhaps this will help others to be better prepared than I.

I have a weakness. I’m someone who likes and needs the approval of others; who likes to be liked. For example, at school I was one of the jokers, because getting the laughs gave me that sense of approval. I became Deputy Head Boy in the Sixth Form, not because I was the most appropriate choice, or responsible student, but because voting for me was plainly ridiculous, and so people did it for fun. Not in a derisive, ‘laughing at’ sense, but in a ‘laughing with’ one. I gained a sense of belonging from the enjoyment that seemed to give everyone (except the teachers).

Now, however, as the boss I can’t be the self-deprecating joker. I’d love to be (as it’s my natural role) and I’ve certainly tried, but it doesn’t work. As the boss I need to be the leader, setting standards for my team. I need to have the answers. I need to be consistent and credible. On the occasions I have let the joker out of his box, I’ve found that key staff don’t get the joke. For example, I’ve at times adopted a shrug and said “Oh, I’m rubbish at that… why don’t you do it? You’re much better than I am” in the hope that the person would understand that I’m trying to motivate them whilst offering them a chance to own a particular task. However, some staff members take me at my word and believe I really must be rubbish! In itself that is not an issue, but it does contribute to a more serious problem, which is a lack of trust in me as a boss. How can my team trust that I’m making the right management decisions if they frequently see me as a bit crap?

So in time there’s this look that comes out on the face of some staff members. It says “you’re rubbish and you know it, and I know my job better than you”. And there is groupthink amongst team members, which turns the look into “we all know better than you. Just leave us to it and stop interfering”.  One member of staff actually said that to me once.

I’ve created a monster.

This is where it gets quite solitary. As the boss my view of the business stretches much wider and also much further forward than anyone’s. I have the full picture, and I’m the only one who does. So my management decisions are taken with this full picture in mind. I have the Operational, Tactical and Strategic views. But to everyone else my decisions may seem unusual, as they are not presented with the benefit of full context. Staff members only have the Operational view. So this leads to the monster questioning my decisions, doubting my judgement, and I suspect feeling a bit frustrated with me.

So I’m disconnected from them.

Now don’t get me wrong. My team are wonderful. They will never know just how much I love them… really… when I think of them I could almost cry because I care about each of them so much. I see the younger ones developing as lovely, confident people, and the older ones balancing the other things going on in their lives alongside the massive learning curve of this business, and it makes me feel very protective. I desperately try to help them, and be a friend, and a good boss.

In the early stages of the business I thought I could bridge the gap. I thought I could be one of the team, and we could all be buddies. I’m a good guy, so why not? But I’m currently wrestling with the realisation that I may always be just ‘the boss’ in their eyes, and there might always be a barrier between us.

And I wonder whether that realisation is a rite of passage that most bosses have to go through. I can’t help thinking of all the work Christmas parties I’ve been to in my life, where everyone (including me) wanted to sit with their friends and nobody wanted the seat next to the boss for the next two hours. And at a work dinner party we recently had, it felt like I was that boss.

So perhaps this is all quite normal. And there are certainly advantages to being detached. If I have to discipline someone for taking an hour’s worth of smoking breaks during a six hour shift, that is a lot easier if there is a professional distance between us. It is horrible to have to say no to a holiday request if it would leave us short-staffed, but it is even harder to do so if the staff member is a close friend. Basically, all the tough decisions that I MUST make as the boss are perhaps made slightly easier if I am isolated from everyone.

I don’t think anyone can be a good boss if fear of being unpopular prevents them taking a necessary decision.

But that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy how it feels right now.

How about you?

Thursday, 10 October 2013

A Broader View

Over the past year I've started a new cafe business called Habitat Cafe, in Aberfeldy, Scotland. It was created from nothing. The premises were derelict, unused for 4 years with a leaking roof and unidentified brown things growing here and there.
Now it is a beautiful space with oak flooring, tranquil colours, and farmhouse tables made with reclaimed wood.
We recruited baristas with no previous experience, since there were none in this part of the world. In the absence of a chef, we installed a lady with previous cooking experience but limited repertoire and little confidence. Most of our waiting staff were still at school (and still are!).
Now they are a massively strong team, with great skills and a pride in doing a good job. 
In the beginning we had no idea whether the business would work.
Now we are about to be awarded a top prize in a prestige national awards ceremony in recognition of our devotion to beverage standards. 

It has been a hard year, filled with doubt and fear. The hours have been long, and the financial rewards have so far been elusive.  The nature of the challenges I personally have faced has been, and continues to be manifold and varied.

Starting and running a business is the biggest learning experience of my life.

So I've realised that I need a place to reflect upon this learning. To bounce around my own managerial quandries.  To record thoughts regarding customer interactions, successful or otherwise. And of course, to continue discussing coffee, along with other areas of drinks, food, service and people.

Rather than start a new blog, I will expand the scope of this one so it is less of a pure "coffee lab" and more of a "cafe business lab".

My writing, as it always has been, is primarily for my own benefit. Writing aids my learning. It is also cathartic, I find... better out than in.