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Before we met, Leigh and I were both successful business owners who’d ironed out our managerial strategies. Or so we thought. It wasn’t until we began working together – after opening Willowbrook COBS Bread bakery in Vancouver – that we had to reflect on our particular approaches from our combined 16 years of experience.


In the early days, Leigh ran the bakery while I was on maternity leave with our twins, Charlie and Ella. His right-hand man, “Mike”, had been trained to run the production area, and he was very good at his job. After transitioning back to work, I focused on customer service while Leigh oversaw operations and jumped in wherever he was needed.


For the first 12 months everything went surprisingly well. In fact, it wasn’t until we had to hire a new baker that cracks began to emerge and we realized that we had vastly different ideas about the most important aspects of our business.


From my point of view, the quality of our products were key to increasing sales and creating loyal customers. Mike was more interested in the ease of production – optimising the equipment and staff to make the bakery run as smoothly and efficiently as possible. All the while, Leigh was focusing on costs, profits, staff retention, and general business operations.


On a particularly memorable day, I found myself alone with the new baker. As he pulled some treats from the oven and began to wind down his day, I asked him to “bake them just a little lighter next time, because that’s what the customers prefer”.


With head drooping and shoulders slouched, he looked at me and said, “I can’t keep doing this. It’s too hard to keep all of you happy. Mike told me off yesterday for baking it too light and asked for it to be darker. Now you’re asking me to bake it lighter. If you guys are going to keep changing your minds and making me feel like I’m doing something wrong, then I’m done working here”.


To be honest, my initial reaction was what the hell?! But then it hit me: We were running three businesses in one: (1) mine, (2) Leigh’s, and (3) Mike’s (even though he was an employee, his dedication to his job meant that he viewed it as his business).


Recognizing that this wasn’t sustainable and that it was going to end up costing us in a number of ways, I called a meeting. Late one night, Mike, Leigh and I went into the bakery and worked through our recipe book – discussing the ways we did things and aiming for agreement on the way we were each going to commit to going forward.


After extensive discussions (read: yelling), we decided to focus on what was best for the customers, the staff, and the bakery as a whole. Fittingly, we coined this the ‘Willowbrook way’.


The next day, we called a staff meeting, told everyone what we had decided, and apologised for putting them in an uncomfortable and confusing position. After breathing a collective sigh of relief, their confidence and comfort in their jobs was immediately obvious. Now, they knew what to do. It was clear what was expected of them and how we wanted things done. And they didn’t have to worry about upsetting one (or all) of us by forgetting how each of us liked things done.


That being said, it wasn’t always smooth sailing when our differences re-emerged. But we had been down that road before, learned from our mistakes, and prioritized hashing it out each time to adopt the ‘Willowbrook way’.


To this day, I am thankful that our baker had the guts to tell me what was going on. Otherwise, we may have lost a great staff member, or perhaps even become a ‘revolving door’ without knowing why.


Do you have too many cooks in the kitchen? Do you need to have a difficult meeting so that you can work out your own “Willowbrook way”?


Click here to book a time to chat with us about how to prepare for these meetings, and other ways to optimise your business. Not only will you stop losing great staff, your team will thank you for it.

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