Behind the Bar

How to Navigate the Move from Teammate to Leader

A woman talking to another woman behind the bar.
When you step into a leadership role, you can still maintain a friendship with former peers, so long as respect, consideration and kindness are your first priority. Photo via iStock/Dragonimages.

Managers, business partners and owners all take different paths to get to that point in their career. Sometimes it’s a fluid move — they move on and back into a bartender role. Regardless of the circumstances, moving into a new role requires a certain amount of patience as you learn the job. Also important is how you handle the relationships forged while in the trenches with your teammates, who you’re now supervising. It’s not always tumultuous, but can be difficult to figure out all the same.

“It is exceptionally difficult to correct your once and future peers, and sometimes it can get real messy, but nothing gets respect like respect," says Diana Benanti, former bartender and current general manager at Taste in St. Louis. "Be generous — with your candy, your time, your patience.”

Below, some advice to make that transition as smooth and uneventful as possible.

1. Show what you know

Bosses know stuff, right? Let your team see the work you’ve put in thus far to build your knowledge base, whether that be about your menu specifically, individual spirits or business and leadership.

“Really just being open and honest and sharing your knowledge is the key, to me, to keeping that respect, as well as being able to maintain somewhat of a friendship,” says Eric Henry, bar manager at The Whistler in Chicago, who started there as a part-time door person about eight years ago.

2. Listen and be open-minded

Sometimes your teammates have learned or developed better or more efficient ways of doing one thing or another. Don’t discount their input.

“I’ve only been in this role for about two years, whereas a lot of my staff have been in the industry for a decade plus. So everyday I try to learn new things from them and hopefully I can make their experience better here and be open minded to the way that somebody else is and not be so closed off or a way to do something better,” says Bob Begandy, who works as bar manager at Dusek’s Board and Beer, Punch House and Tack Room, and who, like Henry, also started as a door person. “People feel like they’re being part of this collaborative effort and that we’re all a team and it’s not just, I’m just the guy that unfortunately has to make the schedule, you know? So, it’s a team at the end of the day and that’s the way I look at it, I don’t ever consider myself above [them] — and using certain words feels weird, like, ‘my staff.' That just feels weird coming out of my mouth. I’m still one of them.”

“[I]t doesn’t always have to be like what you see on TV sometimes where it’s like ‘my way or the highway,’ you know? There are people out there that have great ideas that you may not necessarily know,” says Henry.

3. Don’t be afraid to pitch in and do any job, big or small

Just because now you’re the boss doesn’t mean that you can’t pitch in on a job that the boss would normally delegate to someone else.

“I’m a big fan of being very hands-on, and it’s kind of a curse as well, because I have issues doing certain things that some managers are really great at, like, ‘do this’ or ‘do that.’ I’m more of a, ’let’s do this, let’s do that’ [manager], and I’m not afraid to get behind the bar and wash some dishes," says Begandy. "I feel like some people who have problems with managers, it’s always like a point and a tell instead of an 'ask and let’s do it.' I’m not trying to be a dictator, I want to be your friend at the end of the day, I want people to enjoy work as much as possible.”

4. As always, communication is key

Communication’s just huge, and oftentimes you don’t realize that’s the only thing that’s lacking in a relationship. Ask somebody what they’re happy with or what they think could work better,” says Henry. “Even asking, even if you don’t implement it always, it shows that you’re open to working as a team. People can respect that, especially if you’ve just recently jumped up a notch and they feel like they got passed over or like they could do it. If you bring somebody into the fold with you in that way, it just encourages them that you’re not leaving them behind or shutting out their ideas in favor of yours completely."

5. Be nice

Treating people well (the way you’d like to be treated) works in preschool and works at on the job as well. Don’t underestimate the importance of caring about the people you work alongside.

“I've seen shitty managers, I've worked for shitty managers, we all have, and we all think we'll be better when it's our turn. Don't play favorites. Don't ruin service for everyone by yelling at people in earshot. If it's a big enough deal, it will still be fresh in your mind after service, and you'll have ample time to parse the details but occasionally not the burning desire to make an example of someone. And often, that's a good thing,” Benanti says.

“I like to be humble and I like to treat everybody fairly, and I think I have some background in doing that because I started out at the bottom. And now I’m here. No pun intended,” says Begandy.

Ultimately, it can be a fine line between being that authority figure and still maintaining the rapport and friendships with team members. It can be hard to be the one always cheering and rarely being cheered for, Benanti says, even though she loves the cheerleader part of the job.

“But when you work with awesome, talented, batshit insane people, your reward comes in doing the work alongside the best and brightest,” says Benanti. “Ever seen two coworkers spontaneously hug in the middle of set up or service because they are just happy to be together? I see it all the time. Always remember: almost everything will be fine.”

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