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?


  1. Hi Mike,

    This is a really good post. Baristas often forget that they don't know everything because they are frequently built up to act as if they do (the character and arrogance of baristas is worth several blogs in itself).

    However, I worry that this post might be taken to justify autocracy. I don't think this is what you're saying, but when you speak of isolating yourself to make the decisions that are required it starts to sound like you don't WANT the input of your baristas. I'm sure this isn't the case, but owners have a hard balance to strike between accepting input and doing their own thing.

    It's important to bear in mind that even whilst being 'a soft shite' needs to be avoided, so does autocratic leadership. Tough decisions need to be made, but sometimes the best people to help you make them are those around you.

    1. Hi - thanks very much for your comment.
      Perhaps I should mention that I work with around 15 people in a variety of roles... kitchen, front of house, baristas, and p/t general assistants, all different ages and genders (predominantly ladies). So far we've managed to avoid the 'arrogant barista' scenario... although we do occasionally experience the 'moody chef'!

      I think the thing I was trying to say wasn't that I'm actively isolating myself in order to make decisions... it's actually the other way around. I don't want the isolation. I would much prefer not to be, or to feel, isolated. I don't see any signs of autocracy, to be honest. It's a relatively empowered ship in my view, with a great crew. I'd love those around me to be able to help with tough decisions. But life isn't that simple, and as the business owner I need to make decisions, and often that will not involve the input of the dishwashing assistant :) And it would be fruitless to try to explain the rationale behind every decision to every member of staff. So there is a need for trust. And that trust needs to go both ways. So perhaps what I'm realising as I write this is that the root cause of my sense of isolation (this overwhelming "nobody understands me!!" cry) is a shortage of reciprocal trust. Hmm. That needs a lot of thought. There are lot of questions to consider.

    2. Hi Mike
      I had a bucketful of words to throw at you regard the situation, and in the end none of them would ever convey the reality. I work in a specialist medical field and have at times been responsible for the teaching and actions of several hundred people. The job entails a high degree of professionalism not only from me as the director, but from them as a practitioner in the public eye and as a physician caring for patients.

      In order to mitigate the whole situation of 'ownership' within the different arenas I found myself working in, I found it easier to distance myself from the company as being "me", and made it a distinct and separate functioning organisation of which I was an employee like everyone else. Yes this was a mental dissonance, but in application, everyone soon got the vibe and realised that my role was the director for the company even though it bore my name. How does it help? Well,it made it easier to maintain company mandated standards as being above and separate from me the director. I could run the company to the rules and it ceased to get personal as ALL of us adhered to them. I could be friendly and kind, but everyone knew it was my allocated JOB to lead and direct and maintain the standards. It engendered respect for the position, and left me free as 'management' to be isolated from personal issues that arise when employees feel that the owner 'owes' them something or they can liberties with company policy.
      Bottom line, they accept payment for working in a structured environment with set procedures and conditions. If they come up with a better way of doing things and you change it, that is a change of company policy for which they have contributed and is much appreciated. If they attempt to change things through personal contact, then the 'company' mentalism takes precedence and you are free to be the company employee boss.
      It works for me.