When I’m not writing about the practice of law, I spend my time managing a small coffeeshop/record store in Carrboro.
It’s located near the high school and just a few blocks from the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. Which means there is always a bountiful supply of bright, talented young people eager to make coffee and play records.
At any given time, I usually have two or three co-workers on the payroll. They work part-time, on nights and weekends. A dozen or so have passed through the shop in the two years we’ve been open. They come and go as they graduate, find full-time work or move to the next step of their life journey.
I love having these young co-workers around. They teach me new things. They keep my spirit fresh.
And my customers love them. I am constantly being asked, “Where do you find such good people?”
And I reply, “I don’t. They find me.”
The Business Major Who Came in From The Cold
It’s true. Every single person I’ve hired was a customer before they were a job applicant.
Take Harrison. The UNC business major showed up one day, ordered a large cup of Honduran dark roast and sat with his laptop in a booth by the window for most of the afternoon. Next day he came back, this time with a roommate. This continued for a couple of weeks. He showed up almost every day. He would come alone or with friends. He would work on his computer or browse the record bins.
Eventually, he asked if I was hiring. We had a brief interview and by that Saturday, he was working his first shift and doing great.
The thing was, I knew Harrison would be a fine employee. I knew because he was initially attracted to the place not because he wanted a job, but because he liked being there. He got the concept. He felt right at home.
I didn’t go out and find Harrison. He found me.
Excellent Employees Are All Around Us
I am no expert on human resources. I’ve never read a manual on talent recruitment, much less written one.
But I’ve been around awhile, and I’ve seen what works and doesn’t work in retail. Here are some pointers for building a terrific team:
- Let them shine their unique light. Each employee brings something special to the job. Alexandra had worked for Starbucks and Caribou and knew more about coffee than I did. Marena didn’t know beans about coffee (pun very much intended) but was a gifted musician who was plugged into the local indie scene. My role is to identify their special skills and give them freedom to sparkle.
- Set clear expectations. I’ve learned the hard way that employees are not mind-readers. They won’t know what I want unless I tell them. So I try to specific about how I want things done – from making drinks to taking out the trash. Putting it in writing helps.
- Speak less, listen more. There is an inherent power imbalance in the employer-employee relationship. This is magnified when there is a gap in age. As a result, some workers are hesitant to speak up, even when they have good ideas. I try to tease out their creativity by holding “discussion times” instead of staff meetings. We have a suggestion whiteboard – anything goes, so long as it’s positive. And each week I challenge them to come up with one way to move the business forward, even if it’s something small like replacing the floor mat at the front entrance.
- Set a high bar. I’ve learned if I expect the minimum, that’s what I’ll get. But if I expect my workers to be stellar, the results are often astounding. Last February I asked Emma for ideas on Valentine’s Day. She organized an evening with a friend playing love songs, a special “couples” coffee blend and a Hershey’s kiss at every table. It was one of our best nights.
So take a look around. Your amazing employee might be standing right in front of you. Walk up and introduce yourself. Ask if they’d like a cup of coffee.
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He is a former Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual.