Series Part 6: How to Hire Good Leaders

Illustration by  Alabaster


I once had a conversation with some of my original coffee friends ”the people with whom I worked my first coffee job in New York. One of them had just moved from management to education. At that time, I had stepped down from managing a café and was working as a barista, and I remember saying to her, œGosh, no one tells you how horrible managing is.  She nodded in complete agreement.

Managing a café is one of the most difficult jobs in coffee. It might seem easy ”order stuff, hire people, make a schedule ”and business owners and bosses often hire managers thinking that these kinds of tasks will be their only responsibilities. However, management involves, at the very least, personal openness to deal with and guide baristas through problems, quelling fears and recognizing the sometimes ridiculous goals from higher ups, and rarely being thanked or acknowledged. Baristas, when was the last time you thanked your manager for a killer schedule? Bosses, when was the last time you told your manager they’re doing a good job because no one quit this month?

Managing is hard, but it doesn’t have to be horrible. Here are some ways to identify the right leaders and to empower them to make positive change in the café.

  1. Good Leaders Are Introspective

Remember last week when we talked about identifying skills in a potential hire? Good managers need to know not just what their employees are good at, but what their own strengths are and how to harness them. Managers have to be able to recognize what they contribute to the team, and how their general presence affects others.

Exceling as a manager isn’t necessarily about possessing specific skills, but more being aware of oneself and others. This is important for two reasons. First, being self aware means that you understand how what you say affects others. As a manager, this is important since you have to approach each and every one of your employees differently, and also be aware of the tone and tactics you employ to push them forward. A simple example: If two of your baristas are struggling to close efficiently, one might need a checklist because they are a visual learner, while the other might need to shadow you doing the job in order to master it.

Secondly, being aware means you can create a meaningful and honest environment in the café. Your actions aren’t without purpose, and knowing yourself and what you want from your café guides every decision. You become responsible for the message and tone you set for your staff and customers.

I can attempt to explain this more, but as always, the Harvard Business Review already did an awesome job in this article about focused leaders. If management and employee morale are as interesting and important to you as they are to me, I’d recommend subscribing to this website.

  1. Good Leaders Create Safe Environments

I’ve heard from dozens of people (and have felt the same in some work environments) that they’ve been told by management that they could be fired at any moment. That doesn’t feel good for obvious reasons, and good managers make sure their baristas feel safe at work. Job security is certainly part of it, but safety at work also involves making sure people feel OK to talk about issues, especially their own failings and misgivings.

To share another salient moment from my own coffee career: I once worked in a café where employees had difficulty accepting blame for a problem. Constantly asking œWho did this?  or œWho put that there?  became an endless circle of finger pointing. Everyone would deflect. We spent so much time placing blame on others that we’d never solve problems. Eventually, I decided I would accept blame ”for everything. At this point I was an assistant manager, and letting myself take one for the team allowed others to feel more open and accepting of their own mistakes, because once blame was put on someone, it seemed insignificant, and a solution was quickly found. People felt safe enough to admit when they were wrong because they knew accepting their faults would encourage growth and progress.

  1. Good Leaders Trust Their Staff

Multi-year Irish Barista Champion and owner of the respected Dublin coffee company, 3fe, Colin Harmon recently said that when you’ve worked a 12-hour day, you shouldn’t feel good at the end of the day, because that means you’re doing it wrong. Good leaders should practice that as well. Sure, a manager should be able to pick up a double if someone calls in sick, or help a new hire close even if they opened, but they shouldn’t feel the need to always be there. Something that has been very difficult for me is to not step behind the bar when I’m not working. There’s no reason for it, and stepping into a co-worker’s space is telling them I don’t trust them to do their job, which is to serve coffee drinks. Let your staff help you relax, and don’t sweat it if things are not exactly how you want them to be. If they care (which most people do most of the time), they’re doing things in a way that makes sense to them and helps make their shift a successful one.

  1. Good Leaders Always Find a Way to Persevere

There are a lot of sucky situations behind the bar. Good leaders should be able to find ways to grow and learn from every experience. When I reflect on the discussion I had with my coffee friend about managing, I think this was the biggest skill I lacked. I didn’t know how to bring myself up from difficult situations, and take ownership over a rough time. This is a theme we’ve talked about a lot ”accepting your role in a café as a means of empowerment ”and it’s something that has endured throughout my research on this series. Good leaders aren’t always good at their jobs, but they can take a step back and say, œThis sucks, so what can I do to help it not suck? 

Regardless of how introspective, trusting, or resilient you are, things will happen to upset the balance of your café. Next week, we’ll talk about the biggest thing that can rock the boat: what to do when someone quits.



Ashley Rodriguez  thought that she’d take a break from teaching middle school science and putz around in a coffee shop for a few months. She ended up digging it way more than teaching (and was vaguely better at it). After spending 5 years making coffee in New York, she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where she worked for Sightglass Coffee for three years. She recently decided to give full-time coffee writing a go, though she can still be found working bar shifts now and again in Temescal Alley in Oakland. Ashley is Barista Magazine’s Online Editor, and can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @ashisacommonname


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