The struggles of being a leader is real, and that’s why we’re publishing all of Elle Taylor’s incredibly candid interview with Barista Magazine. (Read part one here.) In part two, the owner of Denver’s Amethyst Coffee shares her thoughts on her staff, what she struggles with as a leader, and her fondness for scarves.
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Photos courtesy of Elle Taylor
AR: Tell me about your staff.
ET: Since you asked, I’m going to tell you about my staff one by one, but I promise to keep it brief. If I’m the soul of Amethyst, Cierra is the backbone. She is strong, loving, and could take more credit than anyone for making Amethyst what it is today, but she doesn’t and she won’t because she is a queen of all queens. Kal is a man who hides behind jokes, but is actually pensive and cares more than he wants to let on. He doesn’t let himself go very often, but when he does you’ll want to be around to see it. Roman is a regular turned staff member turned most trusted confidant. His fierce, yet calm, loyalty could fool you into thinking he’s just out for a good time, but there’s so much more to him than just his dance moves and his mustache.
Paula is humble to a fault and it may be my life’s calling to help her see how deserving she is of all of the love. She finds joy in anything and everything, and if you turn around for one second she’ll have all of the prep work done and she’ll have cleaned everything the eye can see. Winn is our diamond in the rough. He is seemingly calculated and analytical, but his capacity for empathy is far beyond most humans. He’s honest and generally three steps ahead of you, but you won’t know it until he’s said something sassy in French, winked at you, and then walked out the door. Kat is the only person I’ve ever met who might be able to out-Energizer-bunny me. She’s always got a book or a project; she’s always learning and listening. She’s open to new experiences and always down for slow days or whirlwind adventures.
We all fill a particular niche, and we all have different reasons for being in coffee. Most days we manage to balance each other out pretty well.
AR: How do you approach hiring, and how do you think about employee happiness and retention?
ET: The way I think about employee retention is the way I think about playing in bands. At Amethyst, we’re currently a seven-piece band. If you’ve ever played on a sports team or in a musical ensemble, you know that even replacing just one person can take more love and energy than people are willing to give. From a logistical standpoint, new staff costs money, and a lot of it. From an emotional standpoint, I don’t like to let people go. This means I have to do my best to keep things fresh and exciting so people will stick around. This means investing company money in fostering their coffee- and service-related interests, such as cafe takeovers, guest bartending, trips to SCA and regionals, competitions, catering, collaborative sig-drink menus, and whatever else we can all dream up.
I try to strike a balance between a supportive boss and a boss that trusts their employees, which sometimes means that just because I think there is a certain way to do things does not mean that’s always how it gets done. I give my staff freedom to do things how they feel comfortable doing them. At the end of the day, if they can tell me about the intention behind a certain decision in a way that makes sense to me, that’s fine, even if I would not have gone about it in that way. I’m not here to stifle people; I’m here to facilitate creativity and freedom within certain confines. I try to first treat my staff as people, then as coworkers, and finally, and only if it comes to it, as employees.
AR: What is the most important thing you do at the cafe as a leader? What skills do you think are necessary to lead a staff, and how have you learned or adapted to the challenges of owning a business?
ET: The most important thing I do at Amethyst is put my foot down. I find that I often need to make decisions that make me ‘pull rank’ for the sake of my staff, and not for my own sake. Sometimes in order to be an effective leader you need to be curt and decisive, not because you want to (if you’re me), but because that’s your job. That may seem like a silly thing, but this is how I think of being an owner. I’m not different than my staff, I just have a different set of responsibilities. The same way that Winn orders coffee and Paula takes photos, I do our books and budget our money. The same way Roman orders bandanas and Cierra runs our food program, I run payroll and make decor decisions. We all work three to five days behind the bar and use those other days to do whatever else our job description requires of us, and also take time off.
I think there are a lot of skills necessary to lead people, but here are the heavy hitters in my book:
Patience: So much patience. I do my best to hear everyone out and to not freak out when things break or I get a call about something that I think could have been figured out without me. I do my best to give everyone their space to do their job, even if it takes longer than I think it should or longer than it would if I were to just do it myself. I’ve come to hate the phrase ‘if you want something done right, do it yourself.’ Nope. I’m not a tech, I’m not a baker, I’m not a designer, I’m not a photographer. In order for these things to be done right, someone else has to do them for me, and it is my job to try really hard to pay them what they are worth.
Ability to Relinquish Control: As I said, I don’t mandate very many things, which can make life at Amethyst a little unstructured. However, I’ve worked for people who cannot let go, and that was way too frustrating for me. I totally empathize with it now, but I really have to stop myself from panicking when someone chooses music I would never play in the cafe or when someone builds a drink in a way that I think is not ‘best.’ Opinions are different and that’s life. I’ll never run a ship where everyone has to operate and work the same. I have my expectations that I communicate to my staff, and as long as those are fulfilled, then that’s good enough for me. I want the destination, and my staff can choose their own journey.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, But Also Sweat the Small Stuff: Owning a business for me is a beautiful balance of not worrying about the little things and obsessing over the details. What light bulbs do we use? Don’t care, as long as they fulfill the wattage requirements. (Amethyst happens to be FULL of natural light, so this isn’t a huge deal.) What order do the pastries get displayed in? Don’t care. Cierra went to the bank on Tuesday instead of Monday? Totally fine. People want to move the chairs and tables? Great! Do whatever you want!
Conversely: Do we use cloth towels or paper towels in the bathroom? Cloth, because think how nice that is! Everything at Amethyst follows an angle. Our bar, our chairs, our logo, our lights, our planters, the pattern on our bar panels. It feels right. Do you set up milks or grind espresso first? Milk, because I promise it makes more sense. Those might feel like silly examples, but I do my best to pick and choose the details that really matter to me because otherwise I would have driven myself mad by now.
AR: You wear a lot of scarves. Discuss.
ET: I like scarves because I can hide behind them. I’ve never much liked clothes or getting dressed, and scarves are an easy way to spice things up. I love going to thrift stores or antique stores and thinking about the people who wore the silk scarves and what they may have done while wearing them. My mom is an avid knitter and she has made me some of the most beautiful, and warmest, scarves I will probably ever wear. I guess scarves make me feel connected to people. They also make me feel fancy and I like to feel fancy without actually trying to be fancy. I’ll also often wear two scarves, one silk and one knit. One for fanciness and one for functionality.
AR: What feels important to you in coffee? What would you like for our community to work on?
ET: Right now, each other. I’ve not always been the most supportive fellow professional, and while I feel embarrassed for some views that I’ve expressed, I’m trying to give myself some room and realize that I’ve grown a lot both through my own research and listening, and through the patience of some fellow coffee pros. I want to see less judgments made based on gender orientation and race, and I want to see more professional and inclusive treatment of everyone, especially from myself. I don’t feel as though I’ve been un-inclusive (is that a word?), but I know I could be better at being actively inclusive and better educated. I want to be better at creating safe spaces for everyone so we can focus on coffee and not always lead such emotionally draining lives.
I’d also like to see our community start to give back to producing countries in a bigger way. World Coffee Research, the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, the Long Miles Coffee Project, and other organizations that are right now escaping me need funding and attention.
AR: How do you think your staff would describe you?
ET: Well, we just wrote staff bios for each other, so I’ll pull some quotes from that:
‘The founder, the fearless leader; and truth be told she knows more about you than you know about yourself.’
‘Around the shop, you’ll find her constantly challenging everyone’s expectations, and simultaneously showing everyone a good time.’
‘Outside of Amethyst, Elle does more Amethyst stuff. In between the Amethyst stuff, Elle likes to write lyrics and daydream about being a mermaid with a Corgi sidekick that can breathe under water and help Elle fight undersea criminals and solve undersea murders.’
I think a lot about how to foster an atmosphere of mutual respect between myself, my staff, our guests, and our vendors. I think as a team we do a really good job and I always feel respected and loved, in everyone’s own way, by my staff. They say kind things as depicted above, but I can only imagine that they sometimes find me a little overwhelming and pushy, even if it is out of love.
AR: What do you still struggle with as a leader?
ET: Boundaries, always boundaries. I want to be too close, know too much, etc. I will always be too close to my staff; I will always feel more emotionally invested in them than I should. I feel like that’s OK because I acknowledge it, and even then it sometimes isn’t OK. Which, in itself, is OK? Amethyst does not exist just to provide jobs for the staff; it exists to provide a lifestyle. We live in a world of a lot of choices, and my staff chose to work at Amethyst; therefore my responsibility is not to just pay them but to help them live the life that they desire.
Something I am really passionate about as a leader is trying to figure out how people learn and take in information, and I try to have a malleable managerial style so that I can find the best ways to help everyone hear what I’m saying, and hear the same thing. That in itself takes up about all of the emotional energy that I have, which leads to some detrimental things elsewhere. I spend a lot of time thinking about what other people need or how best to communicate with everyone else, so I tend to lose myself. This leads to me blowing up every so often and saying things I don’t mean—not generally at the cafe or to my staff, but in my personal life. I’m working on that balance, and each day I get closer.