Working with Staff

Leaders not Managers; Staff not Employees

After a recent termination, a former member of our staff at Maeva’s Coffee took to a public facebook group to voice her displeasure. One comment in particular caught my attention because it so acutely illustrated the fundamental differences between my role as an entrepreneur who happens to own a small service business versus that of a typical business owner or corporate franchise manager.  

A member of the Facebook group had asked how to contact the manager of the shop and the following comment was made:


I’m sure the comment was meant to be derogatory in some way, but the truth is when I saw it I couldn’t help but feel very pleased. In those few words, the entire essence of my role in the owning and operating Maeva’s Coffee couldn’t have been better defined.


It’s true: we don’t have a manager. I am not a manager. I will never be one.


I don’t have any desire to manage people. I’ve never felt a rush of power or greatness in directing people to do menial tasks. A manager tells you to empty the trash. Writes little notes to remind you to make sure the restroom is clean at the end of the night. Scolds you for forgetting to clock in. Walks in and tells you to restock the bakery display case; put stock away; get this soup order to table 4.

It’s good to be clear and honest with direction and structure, especially at the very beginning of employment. I’ve no problems giving direction in the shop when it is needed. However, if a staff member is still in need of basic direction after a few weeks of employment, they are not the people I want on my team.  

Part of this comes from a fundamental difference between the way I view my staff relative to myself. When I sign paychecks, I don’t think of the money going out as payment to an inferior. Tax and technical aspects aside, the expectations I have for my staff are equivalent to any subcontractor we might hire for the shop. Much like the electrician agrees to fix an outlet, each one of my staff has made an agreement to perform certain tasks in exchange for a cut of the gross revenue of Maeva’s Coffee. Some of these are skilled tasks; such as pulling beautiful shots of espresso, akin to an electrician who has cultivated trade skills to replace fixtures and safely managing wiring. Some tasks are unskilled; like taking out the trash, keeping tables clean, and mopping the floor. All expectations are made clear on the onset of hiring.

When a staff member fails to meet these requirements, it is much like an electrician who leaves wires live and uncapped inside of your drywall. Would you be expected to be happy with a professional service performed in such a manner? Absolutely not.

There are places for people who need mothering and managing- but it was never my ambition to spend my own time and funds to create such a place.

I don’t want employees who mindlessly do the least amount of work in exchange for small hourly wage. That relationship is not one on which to build a thriving and successful independent local business. A lackluster attitude is a slow poison; nothing will sap your personal energy, cause inertia in the passion of your business’ culture, and harm your connection with clients more quickly.

I want staff who attend to the trivial tasks necessary for our shop’s well being because they want to be genuinely involved in its growth and evolution. I want collaboration; I want an ebb and flow of passion, commitment, and creation. Pride and a sense of direct contribution to our success is displayed in work ethic; the motivation behind an action is as important as the action itself. A staff member who restocks product for the following shift out a kindness and responsibility to their coworkers rather than because ‘someone told them to’ means hunting down and hiring people who have an natural sense of solidarity. Don’t be afraid to terminate a new hire who shows up to just ‘do a job’.


We all define our own roles in the minds of others by our actions, words, and by how we react to the behavior of those around us. We teach others how they are able to treat us.


I refuse to be a manager. As someone who has the privilege of choosing with whom I work, I refuse to have staff that need constant managing.

I am an entrepreneur; a leader with many irons in the fire and no time to babysit. If you are exasperated with the amount of time you spend managing your staff, here are some suggestions on how you can stop managing and start leading your team in your small business:


Be Clear in Your Expectations;

Get the basics settled. Clearly outline what your expectations are in your staff handbook and stand firmly by the disciplinary actions outlined when responsibilities are neglected. Stop giving second, third, and fourth chances. If you need to start over by hiring new staff to create a culture of respect, get to it.


Grow Experts:

Give staff a personal reason to be invested in your business. Be hyper aware of their interests and talents. Create ways for each person’s unique abilities to enrich your business. You can do this by sponsoring continuing education in your industry and creating ways to reward the pursuit of knowledge. Hire staff to use their talents for your business or create time in your schedule for them to use them. For example, if you have an amateur videographer on staff, allow them to create interesting staff profiles to use in your social media campaigns or product stills for your website.


Hand Over Essential Tasks:

You’ve hired people you can trust to do the basics, now allow them to help you run your business better. I’ve put certain staff in charge of choosing upcoming guest espresso features, training new employees, or keeping the dry storage inventory in order. Because they aren’t paying attention to a million things like me, and, in many ways have more expertise than I do, they do a better job at it than I could. I appreciate their investment and they appreciate having input on the business they work in every day.


Expect Professionalism:

Expect the best from your staff. Allow them to represent your business in trade shows, industry gatherings, competitions, etc. and they’ll bring the pride back to your day-to-day operation.


Listen As An Equal:

Creating open dialogue with your staff is essential. Recognize and move beyond your own insecurities when they trust you enough to bring an issue to you. Don’t be offended at anything; listen to them as equals.


Model Your Expectations:

Never ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t or don’t do. When I’m working on shift, if a staff member asks me to grab something from the stock room or clean up a mess that’s just happened while their own hands are full, I model the same positive, quick, and helpful response that I expect when I ask them to do similar things. Again, even though many decisions are ultimately left to me, I hire people I respect and treat as equals. No one would ever be able to say I don’t clean the restrooms or do as many dishes as anyone else on shift.



If you’re feeling overwhelmed, know your business needs an overhaul but aren’t sure how to stop managing and start leading, you don’t have to do it alone. I’ll be posting more in-depth ways to specifically craft your business culture soon. If you’re still feeling overwhelmed, let’s meet for a cup of coffee and talk! 



Strength through Staff Collaboration

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.   


Creating Communication

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.


Growing Collaboration

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.  




Maeva's Coffee: A Chess-Inspired Tip Share System

“I’ll be on shift with (long term employee) and she’ll disappear for thirty or forty minutes. I’ll be left by myself without any back up. I just don’t think splitting tips equally is fair.”



“When I’m on shift with (new employee) she just hasn’t been here long enough to really have things down. I have to work harder to make up for it.”



“When I’m on shift with (fellow employees), they don’t even try to know what specialty coffees we have or answer the weird questions. They just refer the customer to me- and I’m in the middle of making drinks. It’s stressful.”


I’ve made it a practice to periodically sit down with our staff individually just to get a feel for how things are going. Taking time out to speak to staff and creating an open dialogue at Maeva’s has been essential to our growth- read here (link) if you would like to know more about creating a collaborative environment in our shop.

Working with people you enjoy in a positive environment is worth it's weight in gold, but being among friends is a double edged sword: small issues have a habit of festering, and none of them wanted to risk creating confrontation in a predominantly positive environment. When half of my small staff expressed unhappiness in their work relationship with other staff, it fell on me to resolve the issues my staff couldn’t with each other.

The issues presented appeared to be training or policy related.  I took the opportunity to meet with our staff on an individual basis again and remind them of the responsibilities that had been falling by the wayside. When verbal communication failed to create a real result, I issued written warnings for offenses and suspended one of our staff members for a week in accordance to our written policies.

Our best-performing staff became increasingly frustrated, as did I. I have always felt my role at Maeva's should be one of a leader and not a manager (link).


“We have to do something they pay attention to- it needs to be about money.”



As disgruntled staff increasingly took longer to complete basic care and maintenance tasks in the shop, our payroll began to climb. My business partner suggested cutting all wages down to minimum ($8.25 in Illinois) as a wake-up call and to set up some system for re-earning their current wage rates ($8.50-9.75; augmented by tips).  However, he is not the day-to-day operating of the shop and his solution put me on the front line of managing a foreseeable disaster. There had to be a better solution that didn’t involve me mitigating an all-out mutiny in the wake of this “let them eat cake” resolution.

I continued to search for a solution after exhausting the options outlined in our employee handbook. Two of our senior employees suggested tip sharing as a way to ease the stress of the knowledge and experience gap between veteran employees and new hires. I began to toy with the idea of creating a tip sharing system which would also work to refocus energy away from negative behaviors and reinforce the efforts of staff who truly invested themselves into our business.  All of our employees are paid above minimum wage, allowing us the freedom to create and experiment with a system with these goals.

I needed to create a system to distribute tips that also fit the following criteria:

  • Based on completely objective achievements

  • Valued book knowledge and actionable skills equally

  • Emphasized continued learning and allowed growth over long-term employment

  • Fairly distributed tips based on time spent on shift

  • Incentivized new employees to learn quickly, allowing them to catch up to veteran employees

One weekend, I puzzled over a game an acquaintance was playing on It occurred to me how optimistically ranks new players at a 1000 level strength out of 3000 point scale. You have to start somewhere, they’ve chosen 1000. As you play more games, your rating deviation is lowered and your resulting level more accurately describes your strength as a player. I began to write out how the Gliko chess ranking system could be adapted to tip sharing. Admittedly, the result looks far from the original, but understanding the Glicko system led to a fair and elegantly simple tip sharing method.

Nine weeks after our staff first voiced their discontent we held a full staff meeting implementing our new tip sharing system. These are my observations after three weeks.



The new system pays 50% of the tips based solely on hours worked in the shop and 50% on weighted rank. Our staff voted that tips would be distributed weekly. When they are available in the shop, the spreadsheet above is also published to ensure transparency.

The first set of numbers disperse half of the total weekly tips among staff per hour.

The second half is dispersed via weight, with total distribution the end. (Note: Justin was a new hire this week and hadn’t yet entered the ranking system- receiving only tips based for his weekly hours in shop and the nominal residual points entered in the ranking system to track seniority).

The second set of numbers show distribution of tips based on ranking weight, which is determined by the following:


Calculating weekly tips takes little effort. The spreadsheets are interlinked so the only values I need to update are the hours each staff member has worked and the total amount of tips being distributed. All of the equations have been built in.

One of the most difficult tasks in creating this system was assigning a point value to different skill levels. With the written/knowledge based exams, I have weighted what information is most important by placing it the lowest exam levels where tests have a higher point value. The first two levels of exams have very little to do with coffee and place an emphasis on directly applicable food safety practices for our business. They include questions such as:

“What temperature do you heat a quiche to before serving it to a customer?”

“How do you know when to change the sanitizer water in the dish sink?”

“At what temperature should the milk be stored?”


The higher level exams dive into the science and history of our industry, encouraging employees to cultivate a solid foundation of knowledge furthering their ability to passionately communicate to our customer base and add to the collective growth of our community’s love for coffee. However, it’s more important to me that our staff isn’t inadvertently giving someone food poisoning than their ability to locate Bali on a map- so lower level tests have a higher point value than higher level tests.

Knowledge isn’t everything. The ten yellow levels are all written exams and comprise 1,190 of available point value. The remaining points are predominantly skill based. Latte art, speed, ability to use a variety of coffee brewing equipment, and the thoughtful cultivation of palate- among other skills- are also weighted into the system. I had hoped to make a system that would be similar to the Gliko chess ranking in which 3000 would be a maximum point allowance, but I did add some categories for obtaining points that may accumulate beyond this.

Some points continually accumulate (i.e. hours spent in shop or tasting entries) while others are only available at certain intervals (i.e. speed testing occurs quarterly).

In the short time we’ve had it in place, I love these three things about this tip sharing system:


It’s completely objective. You either know something or can do something…or you don’t. There is absolute transparency in what you are getting points for and what you can do to improve your score (and therefore your share of the tip pool). There are no subjective points assigned, which takes all of the pressure off of me to evaluate which of our staff are pulling what degree of weight and how that should be rewarded.

With the exception of the speed testing, none of these skills are directly competitive. No one is being pitted against each other. Ideally, everyone would be 10th level ultra baristas, in which case all tips would be distributed equally with only hours worked per week in shop accounted for in difference.


Tracking of tips. Before this, only credit card tips were tracked and, even at that, I didn’t have an easy way of doing so unless I went into each day’s worth of reports via our POS system. Since both credit card and cash tips are pooled together and dispersed, I now know how much our employees are making per hour. This week, our least trained staff member made $11.27/hr and our highest trained staff member made $13.40/h with an average wage of $12.34/hr in shop. This information, as it is collected and averaged over time, will be useful to me as an owner when hiring new staff down the road.


Staff are in control of their wage. With this system, our staff is given a method for improving their skill level, directly affecting their pay in both the short and long term.

As our staff become more knowledgeable, efficient, and skilled they are going to be able to build deeper relationships with our community, attract a wider range of folks into the shop, and accommodate a greater volume of orders in a speedy manner. Logically, this would lead to greater appreciation for our staff’s ability to craft amazing coffee and a greater pool of tips. To put it simply- you want more money per hour? Know more and serve customers better.


Small business is all about being able to custom tailor everything. I’ve read a dozen books about listening and responding to the desires of your customer base, but the last few months have been an exciting challenge of reflecting on the needs of our staff and strengthening our business from within as we continue to grow.

The results: this system was initially met with skepticism and became the catalyst to  losing one of our long-term staff members. However, I’ve been approached independently by half of our current staff who have expressed relief at the decreased level of stress in the shop. When laying out the tip system to one of our new hires, he commented, “I’ve never worked anywhere that actually gave you a reason to learn- this is so awesome!” This overwhelmingly positive reaction was enough affirmation for me to believe that, even if it needed to be altered in small ways in the future, we’re on to something.



Stay tuned! I promise a six-month review later this year after more time has lapsed.