Maeva’s culture of collaboration began out of necessity. My business partner, Joel, and myself decided to launch a coffee house knowing absolutely nothing about the coffee industry. Neither of us had experience in working in, much less running, a coffee shop.
Coffee is much like beer or wine; it’s dynamic. The more I know about the industry the more I’m convinced the knowledge to be had is infinite. Most coffee shop owners have worked as baristas for years, perhaps moved into operations management, or branched into roasting and opened a shop to showcase their product. Our start-up process included much external collaboration and guidance, but this article is going to focus on how the necessity of internal collaboration at our start has grown into an integral part of our continuing success at Maeva’s.
Maeva’s Coffee needed someone who knew first hand what made a successful coffee shop. I was fortunate to find this knowledge in my sister, Hannah. She had worked in a variety of shop styles in the coffee industry and agreed that, if we were to build a shop, she would transfer her studies to a SIUE and be full time staff through our launch. I wouldn’t have even considered investing in this business without someone like Hannah on board for our launch.
Hannah joined the team full time just a few weeks prior to its launch. The shop was in its final stages of construction and it was time to choose the essential product offerings of our business. Hannah navigated us in the selection of the exclusive Maeva’s blend now used for our beverages, brand of flavored syrups, what types of flavored syrups, placement of appliances, and workflow of the counter. She guided me in what choices were worth the expense (an in-counter pitcher rinser, homemade whip canisters, and sanitizer tablets over sanitizer fluid) and kept me from spending money on things we didn’t need or that wouldn’t have been appropriate for our specific type of shop.
I didn’t see it at the time, but this process was making regular collaboration a standard habit for me as the operator/leader of the shop. Harvard Business Review may tout internal collaboration as the vital element of success for tech and corporate cultures, but cultivating this practice in your small business will have an equally profound affect on your personal level of stress and ability to create amazing work relationships between you and your staff. Making collaboration a foundational part of your business culture will exponentially create growth and secure the longevity of the investment you have made in building your business.
Your staff may be unaccustomed to having an input on the choices being made for your business. You won’t be able to trust their feedback is honest and unbiased if an open flow of communication hasn’t already been created.
You should already be practicing individual reviews with your staff on a thirty day, ninety day, and quarterly basis. Start structuring these reviews to solicit feedback from your employees. When it is time to conduct a review, put it on the schedule a week or two in advance. Mention to your staff that there are changes you’re considering about the business- menu changes or operation hours- and you’d like them to give you their observations. This will frame the review as a dialogue beyond the individual performance of a staff member and prepares them for a discussion. During the review, first discuss all of the updates in overall practices or improvements/accolades on their performance. When you are done giving them information, change the direction of the conversation to them giving you information and don’t go back. Ask questions, listen carefully, don’t interject, and thank them for their ideas. They are, after all, giving you ground level suggestions on how to improve your business. Be thankful for the feedback!
Creating work relationships with freely flowing communication will take daily cultivation. Asking small questions (“What do you think of those new filters?”) and listening/responding to the answer will reinforce to your staff how much you value their opinion and give them the confidence to independently make decisions when you collaborate on bigger tasks. If you are starting from nothing, start small and be sincere. Your staff will feel manipulated and resentful if you pretend you desire input but never act on the information they give you.
Creating a Place Safe for Conflict
If communication is open and working well between staff and yourself, you are going to experience conflict. Feedback isn’t always positive. However, navigating negative feedback well will reinforce the openness of your relationship and allow for greater trust during collaboration.
You may get negative feedback on staff to staff relationships (link) that frustrate you with their pettiness or pile more work on your plate. You may get negative feedback on a product you try that just isn’t selling or a new process that isn’t working. Or, you may get negative feedback on yourself.
If you are doing well at creating communication, steel yourself. At times, my staff have offered up difficult criticism or use the openness of our relationship to vent. We’ve disagreed over disciplinary actions; I’ve been confronted with accusations of favoritism and the bled over of my personal problems into our work environment. Handling these moments with compassion, grace, and humility….not becoming defensive or angry...sounds like common sense advice but is not easy in the heat of the moment. If you are a good leader, they already respect you and are coming from a place of frustration, not attack. By having the courage to talk to you, they are seeking resolution in a relationship they see as worth the effort to improve.
Being open and creating an environment safe for criticism will keep your reputation intact. When staff know they are able to respectfully bring problems to you and you have a track record of responding by creating solutions, they are less inclined to vent their frustrations to other staff. Staff who do try to create dissonance through gossip will find themselves unable to easily sway others when your openness to receiving feedback and finding resolutions is known.
With a solid foundation for communication, collaboration can now begin. Take time to ask yourself these questions:
What is something you do you not enjoy doing in your business? What tasks are you not good at in your business? What talents or industry interests do each of your staff have? What would you like to start doing or add to your business that you don’t have time for?
Using your answers, look for ways to use them directly for collaboration. Last summer, my answers would’ve looked something like this:
I do not enjoy straightening and keeping track of the dry storage area. I’m terrible at remembering to order non-weekly materials, like paper cups, in time for them to arrive before we’re out. I have one staff member who loves learning about coffee and has a thoughtful tasting palate and two staff members who are excellent at photography/videography. I’d like to make progress in our drink menu and find more ways to introduce new brewing methods and more traditional beverages to our community.
In the last six months, I’ve delegated the organization of the stock room to a staff member who enjoys organizing things. I’ve been working with other staff to make a plan for creating dynamic material for our Instagram and website. We’ve invested in a new grinder with a second hopper and I’ve put our lead barista in charge of finding and ordering coffees to feature to our customer base. He also works independently with our kitchen manager to create specialty garnishes to pair with these beautiful coffees. The french press, clever dripper, gibraltar, and traditional macchiato are being ordered with more enthusiasm than I ever expected in a community that is new to the craft coffee scene. All of these things have been accomplished with minimal direction and time from myself.
At Maeva’s, I am part of a powerful team of people who are all genuinely invested in the goal of bringing quality coffee and a welcoming atmosphere to our community in the best way possible. Our staff have been solely responsible for countless ideas that have become standard practices in our shop. Our staff have discovered how to cut cheesecakes without messing up the toppings using a knife warmed in hot water, a super efficient way of stacking bar chairs for nightly cleaning, and a shorthand numbering system for tables that we all use to keep track of drinks and quiche during rushes. If they have an idea of where to put stock for more efficient workflow, they don’t ask me- they know they’re welcome to just try it and see how it goes. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked in on shift and said to myself, “Holy shit. I never thought of doing this like that.” Because we have a culture of collaboration, we are able to respond faster to our community’s feedback- designing seasonal specials around the interests and palates of our customers. The events we host are unusual and original- a reflection of our staff’s own diverse interests. Even operation decisions, such as not switching to winter operation hours this year and the election of a non-profit to support through our events, have been determined solely by our staff.
This process is essential to the vitality and longevity of our business, and a prevention against the cancer of staleness. As long as I continue to hire enthusiastic and diverse staff whose talents and interests are different than my own, and I continually work to collaborate with them, Maeva’s will continue to be a fresh and dynamic presence in our community.