February 3, 2016

Coffee Business: 3 Steps to Leading Instead of Managing


As I was mid-rant about how poorly some specialty level cafés are managed, my ex-husband interrupted me. “I’ve never seen your style of managing before,” he said. I retorted: “That’s because it’s not management, it’s leadership.”

Those two words, management and leadership, are key to understanding how well your shop will do. After six years with Starbucks, having been trained by them in Retail Sales Management and then having entered the world of specialty level coffee, I began to realize that far too often café owners hire managers to do just that – manage.

SEE ALSO: Struggling to Profit? 6 Ways to Keep Your Coffee Shop Making Money

Unfortunately, the ability to manage does not reveal the ability to lead a store successfully. And a café manager who can’t lead will, nine times out of ten, result in a negative work environment and a high turnover.

Success is All About your Staff

Your staff run the café, without your input, on average 70% of the time. I know that barista is an entry level position and, in many places, they will only be paid minimum wage. Yet those baristas are your front-of-house sales staff, the face of the company, your brand ambassadors. They serve as your public relations department, and also as your bakers and sandwich makers, your counter staff, and your cleaning crew… not to mention that, first and foremost, they’re creative craftspeople making specialty coffee.

barista at work

Your staff run the café, without you, an average of 70% of the time. Credit: @boxcar_social

So your job is not just about looking after the shop; it’s also about looking after your staff. If you are so focused on your career or the profits and loss statement that you neglect your staff – that you do not develop your baristas or engage them – your staff members will disconnect. You weren’t loyal to them so they won’t be loyal to you. And this will hit the café hard.

Instead, you need to lead your staff, to inspire them, to engage them. And to do that, you need to remember three things: expectations, development, and feedback.

Baristas at work

Engaged baristas accomplish absolutely magical things! Credit: @gabrielnav

  1. Expectations From the Team

Set expectations for your baristas from the very beginning, and update them on a day-to-day basis. Remember that these expectations should evolve, too: your staff should be constantly improving their skills. As humans, we like to know what we should be achieving; it’s a fundamental part of the lives we live.

Yet setting expectations won’t just leave your baristas more satisfied: it’ll also lead them to learn how to meet those expectations; it will cause less stress during times of ambiguity; and, as a result, it will lead to greater consistency and so happy returning customers.

coffee cupping

Constantly develop your baristas. Credit: @philandseb

  1. Development

Your baristas are craftspeople, and that means they strive to learn more: to learn how to dial in better, tamp better, pull a better shot, steam better microfoam, make better latte art… To constantly improve. And as coffee is constantly changing, so a barista’s skillset is not static. So if your baristas’ desire to develop isn’t supported, they’ll find a café that will train them properly.

The lesson to take from this is develop your staff. Future-proof them. Help them to fill in their skill gaps. Oh, and remember that everybody learns in different ways. If you want the training to be effective, you need to cater it to their preferred learning style.


Do your staff know how to use the latest coffee technology? Credit: @WorkingCoffee

  1. Feedback

Accurate and constant feedback is crucial. It will help your baristas to develop and it will also shape how they feel about their work. How great does it feel when you sit down with your manager to be told you’re doing well – and why? But how devastating it is to only hear from the administration when you have messed up? That’s why feedback needs to be frequent and balanced.

This means you should be monitoring your baristas’ performance. No, I’m not talking about spying on everything they do, hovering over their shoulder as they pour their lattes. But what I am talking about is being aware of their ever-evolving performance, their strengths, and their areas to improve – so that you can provide accurate and consistent feedback delivered in a constructive and inspiring way.


Performance evaluations shouldn’t just happen after mistakes. Credit: @camspi

U.S. President John Quincy Adams once said that “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” By setting expectations, providing development opportunities, and giving constructive feedback, you will be leading your baristas. They will be inspired to work harder, make better coffee, and help your café to grow.

Edited by T. Newton.

Feature Photo Credit: @smedleyshots

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