Behind the Bar

Take It From the Top: What Six Bar Managers Wish They'd Known

Bar team working a shift
A good manager knows when to step in and help the team, but also knows how to delegate. Photo: Natalia Wilson via Flickr

Corporate organizations often funnel copious amounts of time and resources into training, educating and shaping young managers in the art of leadership. In the hospitality industry, on the other hand, it’s usually less Six Sigma and more “sink or swim.” Bartenders on the receiving end of a promotion often find themselves steering the ship without a map, with little training in how to lead team-members, set an example and make tough decisions while keeping morale high (and keeping the operation afloat).

It’s not easy. But on the bright side, lots of people have been there, too, and lived to tell the tale. We asked a handful of people with management experience ranging from 7 months to two decades to share the gems of wisdom they’ve picked up along the way — and, perhaps most importantly, the insights they wish they’d known before taking up the mantle.


Brian Maxwell (The Grass Skirt Tiki Room — Columbus, Ohio)

How long have you worked in a management position?

7 years.

Think back to the first management job you ever had. What was the one thing you wish you'd known before moving into a leadership position?

Your staff is going to see everything you do. You're a mentor and a teacher, first and foremost.

What were some of the biggest challenges (or surprises) you faced when you moved into management?

Trying to balance the business with keeping my staff happy.

How can someone tell if they're cut out for a management role?

You have to ask yourself if the business means more than your own ego.

Finally, if you could give a first-time manager any one piece of advice before they transition into a leadership role, what would it be?

Be prepared for failure. Anything that goes wrong now rests on your shoulders and you need to be ready for that and have the ability to move forward.


Alex Daniluk (Union Lodge No.1 — Denver, Colorado)

How long have you worked in a management position?

1 year, 3 months.

Think back to the first management job you ever had. What was the one thing you wish you'd known before moving into a leadership position?

Change your sleep schedule before you have no choice in how much sleep you get.

What were some of the biggest challenges (or surprises) you faced when you moved into management?

You can't skip the simple steps when training new employees. Even the best employees can forget common sense. "No, you can't say that to a guest." "No, you can't put that in your mouth."

How can someone tell if they're cut out for a management role?

If you are stressed out by things you can't control, but don't feel overwhelmed by them.

Finally, if you could give a first-time manager any one piece of advice before they transition into a leadership role, what would it be?

Everyone wants to be friends with their employees, but most of the time you need to put friendship aside and think about the business.


Jenny Kiely (Hawthorn, Mars Bar — San Francisco, California)

How long have you worked in a management position?

13 years in hospitality, 17 years total.

Think back to the first management job you ever had. What was the one thing you wish you'd known before moving into a leadership position?

Even though you can do it better and faster than anyone else, it doesn't do you or the business any favors if you don't learn to delegate.

What were some of the biggest challenges (or surprises) you faced when you moved into management?

You have to remember you can (and should) be best buds with your employees, but at the end of the day, you have a higher business, legal and service responsibility to follow.

How can someone tell if they're cut out for a management role?

Able to rise above and see the bigger picture. And the patience of a saint.

Finally, if you could give a first-time manager any one piece of advice before they transition into a leadership role, what would it be?

Leadership is also mentorship. Pay it forward. You are now a teacher and mentor to those you lead. Lead by example always.


Alex Smith (Whitechapel — San Francisco, California)

How long have you worked in a management position?

22 years

Think back to the first management job you ever had. What was the one thing you wish you'd known before moving into a leadership position?

I wish I knew that a manager in a business is as much a leader of people as a manager of a bar. Leadership skills are not usually taught to bar/restaurant managers; they are usually just taught how to schedule, order, interview, and read a P&L, etc. — the nuts and bolts of the job, but not the underlying and profound responsibility of how to effectively manage others. There are some basic do's and don'ts that all managers should be trained in, but beyond that, there are some deeper philosophical precepts that need to be understood in order to both be effective at the job and also do a proper job of ensuring that we are creating a healthy and professional company culture for the staff to work in. Learning about being a "leader" rather than just a manager is something that I wish I had discovered and started to learn about much earlier than I did.

What were some of the biggest challenges (or surprises) you faced when you moved into management?

It was easy to learn the nuts and bolts of management, but it took me a long time to come to the realization that I needed to look to experts in management and leadership to be able to effectively approach my staff consistently in a way that would result in a healthy, effective relationship and company culture.

How can someone tell if they're cut out for a management role?

They have to be willing to be proactive about learning about effective leadership, in my opinion. There are so many books and podcasts now that are invaluable resources for new managers and seasoned ones alike. Without taking the role of leader in a company seriously, no person can be ready to take on this type of role - or at least they shouldn't.

Finally, if you could give a first-time manager any one piece of advice before they transition into a leadership role, what would it be?

It is unfortunate, but most new managers never get taught the skills and philosophies of leadership. They get to a point where the bar has to hire someone, and they just pick the one that is the best at their job. Well, that is not how to prepare someone to be an effective leader. This leadership training piece is so crucial to an optimum experience for staff and so crucial for the manager to be able to feel confident and be truly as effective as they can be. I would recommend that new managers read every book they can get their hands on and listen to podcasts about leadership. "Unusually Excellent" is a great read for any manager at any level of experience. The "Manager Tools" podcast is also worth listening to. This is a subject that I wish we spent more time thinking about, discussing, and certainly training on in our industry. Leadership can be learned, but the drive to want to learn it needs to be there.


Adam Stearns (Terranea Resort — Rancho Palos Verdes, California)

How long have you worked in a management position?

Less than a year.

Think back to the first management job you ever had. What was the one thing you wish you'd known before moving into a leadership position?

How to be responsible for others and delegate tasks properly.

What were some of the biggest challenges (or surprises) you faced when you moved into management?

The responsibility was expected, but the biggest challenge continues to come from seeking new ways to push the mold, and adapt to each environment. The resort I work for is very large and contains many different types of restaurants/ bars, and personalities. It is my continued goal to find ways to unify each of these while still allowing personality and distinct differences to shine through.

How can someone tell if they're cut out for a management role?

If they enjoy a challenge, are persistent in the pursuit of education, and understand the value of those that work with them, they should stand a chance. A hyper optimistic attitude and approach also goes a long way.

Finally, if you could give a first-time manager any one piece of advice before they transition into a leadership role, what would it be?

It is important to understand that you are not alone, seek those around you to assist, and support them as well. Even if you think you are showing gratitude to your coworkers, make sure you are crystal clear with your appreciation for their hard work and dedication to the pursuit of excellence.


Gates Otsuji (The Standard — New York City)

How long have you worked in a management position?

Many moons.

Think back to the first management job you ever had. What was the one thing you wish you'd known before moving into a leadership position?

How to negotiate a fair salary.

What were some of the biggest challenges (or surprises) you faced when you moved into management?

I was very young, but I looked even younger than my age, so I felt that I had to work twice as hard to get half as much respect.

How can someone tell if they're cut out for a management role?

If you're the most organized person you know, have an office supply fetish, or are obsessed with efficiency, there's a good chance you'll be happy in management. The best managers realize that it's not just about the product; exceeding a guest's expectations is the name of the game, and a lot of that happens on the back end of the business.

Finally, if you could give a first-time manager any one piece of advice before they transition into a leadership role, what would it be?

Check your ego at the door, and be okay with failure. Being a team leader is about the team, and failure is simply the opportunity to learn more. And if the failure is that you don't love being in management, then it's okay to quit being a manager.

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