A bartender’s guide to leadership

Empathy, vision, communication among skills all leaders should possess
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/12/2012

Minding the bar: Helen Rothberg, a professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and president of consulting firm HNR Associates, spoke at a recent Strategic Capability Network about the leadership lessons she learned while working as a bartender. For more information, visit www.scnetwork.ca.

‘Once upon a time’ stories not just child’s play (Strategic capability)

Lessons from storytelling (Organizational effectiveness)

Leaders can’t do it alone (Leadership in action)

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When Helen Rothberg was looking for a job as a bartender to work her way through school in New York, she walked into a popular local bar, told the owner she wanted to work for him and was shocked to hear him respond, “I don’t hire women bartenders.”

Rothberg challenged him to allow her to work for free on the bar’s busiest night and then decide if he would hire her or not. He accepted the challenge. Rothberg worked for four hours that Friday night and was immediately hired — and ended up working at the bar for six years.

Although she didn’t know it at the time, Rothberg’s new bartending job would teach her everything she needed to know about leadership, she said.

“A bar is a microcosm of life, and it’s not just serving drinks, not just giving people peanuts and not just taking care of wait staff. It’s about building community, getting people to share experiences,” said Rothberg, who is a professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and president of consulting firm HNR Associates.

“In all my education and all my years of consulting, I began to realize whatever I was doing in a classroom or with a client was exactly the same as what I would do behind the bar.”

Rothberg was able to get the bartending job through ingenuity, courage and conviction — three of the seven key attributes she said every leader should have.

While Rothberg impressed the owner that first night, she actually didn’t know much about bartending — other than that it paid well. She got to know some of the regulars at the bar and decided to be honest with them about her lack of experience. The guys appreciated her honesty and were eager to help out. So every Tuesday, they would flip through a bartender’s guide and have Rothberg make an array of new and interesting drinks, she said.

“Sometimes, when you tell the truth, you get to learn things you never would have learned, experience things you wouldn’t have experienced and it’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know,’” said Rothberg, speaking at a Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) event in Toronto in December. “I learned how to make all kinds of drinks and I had an experience I never would have had if I wouldn’t have told the truth.”

And the ability to be honest — or have integrity — is another skill all good leaders should have, she said.

One summer, Rothberg’s boss completely revamped the bar. It went from a fancy restaurant called Cincinnati’s with pink walls and pink tablecloths to a casual joint called Maryland Crab House with white and orange tiles and paper tablecloths.

Rothberg’s boss knew there were many other fancy restaurants in the area, so he needed to change to become a destination. He had a distinct, new vision for the bar — and vision is another key attribute all leaders should have, said Rothberg.

“Vision is the ability not just to see forward for the
organization but to see forward tomorrow, to see forward next week, for yourself, for the people who work for you, for the community you serve,” she said. “If you can’t see beyond and really try to create something, then nobody can come with you.”

One evening, a group of Japanese soldiers came into the bar. They didn’t speak English so Rothberg had the kitchen staff bring out a plate of raw fish so the men could point to what they wanted, which worked out well. But when the staff brought the men their meals, all they did was bow their heads — the fish was cooked and they wanted it raw.

“We were so pleased with ourselves but we didn’t go that next step to find out, to pay attention to what really needed to happen next,” said Rothberg.

More effective communication skills would have been useful in this situation.

“Communication is not just about words, not even just about actions but it’s also about body language and tone of voice,” said Rothberg. “You can say something one way and it can be interpreted in many different ways depending on how you sound, how you hold yourself, whether you’re being open or angry.”

Another important component of effective communication is listening, which all leaders should be good at but very few are, she said. Most people are so busy finishing other people’s sentences or formulating their response when the other person is talking that they’re not really paying attention.

All leaders need to develop the patience required to be good listeners, said Rothberg.

Empathy is the final attribute leaders should possess. They need to have the ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes — those of employees, customers, stakeholders and community members — and understand their stories, she said.

Before working as a bartender, Rothberg was a waitress at a fairly seedy diner. She used to have to come to work early to hide silverware and rolls because there often weren’t enough available during her shift. The diner’s bus boy, Eduardo, had come to New York from Guatemala and had to leave his family behind.

One day, Rothberg heard Eduardo playing guitar in the back alley. Shortly after, she bought him some classical guitar records and a record player — and she never had to hide rolls and silverware again.

“I thought what it must be like to be in a strange place where you don’t know the language and you have to do everyone’s dirty work,” said Rothberg. “You need to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, ask ‘Who is this person?’ and realize they’re here too trying to accomplish something, so let’s do it together.”

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‘Once upon a time’ stories not just child’s play (Strategic capability)

By Karen Gorsline

Helen Rothberg’s story reminds us of some basic soft capabilities many organizations tend to forget as part of how they operate on a daily basis.

Rothberg, who holds a PhD, learned her most valuable lessons outside the classroom and transmits what she has learned through a series of stories punctuated with celebratory cocktail toasts.

Whether leaders or participants in organizations, we all need to make time for activities that aren’t directly tied to key performance indicators (KPIs), balanced scorecards or quarterly results.

Making time for soft capabilities can contribute to increased engagement and sustainable performance. Here are a few lessons from Rothberg’s experience:

Make time for storytelling: We all learned from stories as we grew up — bedtime stories, fables, books, movies, family tales or history. All cultures use stories as a means to teach important life lessons, transmit knowledge, instil values, reinforce warnings and celebrate heroes and accomplishments. While some organizations see storytelling as a waste of time, others — such as Google, Apple and Home Hardware — see the value and have ensured their culture makes time for stories that recognize what’s important to long-term success.

Remember someone is always watching: The phrases “Walk the talk” and “Actions speak louder than words” are apt reminders. The stories and talk must be complemented by consistent behaviours on the part of mentors, leaders and colleagues.

Humans mimic the behaviours of others as part of their learning. If what is said and done are disconnected, it creates tension, confusion and cynicism. “Do as I say, not as I do” quickly leads to a dysfunctional organization.

Make time to listen and talk: Storytelling and role modelling are not enough. While employees at a given organization may have much in common, each person is different and sees the world from his own perspective. Without taking the time to talk, we lose the opportunity to exchange information, share perspectives and learn how to interpret behaviour.

It’s easy to make assumptions but in a knowledge economy, conversations are critical to ensuring those assumptions are valid. The conversations may be easy or difficult and may involve information-sharing, brainstorming, venting, acting as a sounding board or coaching.

Foster imagination and individual growth: As we grow up, we learn rules, standards, norms and acquire knowledge. Our world becomes both bigger and smaller at the same time. Imagination is traded for knowledge, and creativity for success or productivity. As children, play and exploration based on curiosity formed a large part of our education. Why should this stop?

Education systems have specific learning models. Knowledge acquisition is often best served by these learning models, but wisdom is usually better gained by experience. In addition, individuals are different and have different learning styles, which may not be met by traditional educational models.

Even those whose learning style is suited to formal learning tools (such as classroom, courses, reading and analysis) can enhance their capabilities through dialogue and observing the performance of others.

Encourage celebration: Celebration does not need to be elaborate or expensive. Formal recognition can be supplemented by more subtle forms of celebration. A simple “Thank you” or “Great job” takes almost no effort. Celebration also includes creating situations where people feel pride in their work and contributions on a regular basis. When we feel our work is meaningful, to ourselves, colleagues and the organization, we do a better job and that makes a difference.

When times are tough, it’s easy to ignore these capabilities, but we need the depth of support and potential that they offer, especially in tough times. Regardless of how grown-up we are as individuals and regardless of how much organizations try to professionalize the management of people, some things never change.

Everything in our human experience — as children, students, parents, workers and leaders — indicates these common sense things are important.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. She has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at gorslin@pathcom.com.

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Lessons from storytelling (Organizational effectiveness)

By Barbara Kofman

Every now and then, we’re reminded how powerful it can be to use storytelling to teach a lesson and engage the listener. Helen Rothberg did just this when she used her own story to highlight the elements of great leadership she learned while working as a bartender.

Here are a few of the lessons she delivered that have relevance for both individuals and organizations:

A cautionary tale: Rothberg delivered a cautionary tale about how demotivating a toxic work environment can be (as evidenced by the story of a worker who undermined her success) as opposed to a healthy one (as demonstrated by a bartender who taught her the value of getting to a place where you have greater control over your life). As Rothberg put it: “If the shoe doesn’t fit, find a different pair of shoes.”

The importance of culture: The work culture should allow employees to speak the truth without fear of consequence. When Rothberg started working as a bartender, she admitted to her customers she didn’t know how to make the drinks they ordered and, instead of complaining, they made it their goal to help her learn — wouldn’t it be great if this was the norm in all organizations?

Belief in self: Permeating all of Rothberg’s stories is her indomitable belief in herself. Nowhere was this more evident than in how she obtained the job she held while going through grad school — by convincing the manager to hire his first female bartender after initially working for free to prove herself. The lesson is “Know who you are and show what you can do” and, for organizations, be willing to take a calculated risk when someone shows potential.

Show your stuff: There were other compelling lessons for job hunters and organizations seeking to make successful hires. Rothberg’s account of her brother’s rise in Hollywood from temp to head of his own studio reinforced the edict “Be willing to demonstrate who you are” but, again, this can only work if organizations are open to providing the opportunities for people to do so.

Unique training: Before being granted her doctorate, Rothberg’s PhD committee sat at her bar to witness for themselves the strategic management lessons she was applying in her work — an acknowledgement we don’t all learn the same way. This is something HR sometimes fails to take into account when designing one-size-fits-all training programs. As she put it: “HR is the heartbeat of helping people find the courage to stand and thrive in their own shoes.”

While some of Rothberg’s leadership lessons may have sounded familiar, never have they been delivered in such a refreshing and memorable way. Her narrative was a good reminder for the end of the year and the beginning of another that a powerful, well-delivered story is a captivating way to teach and to learn. It challenged each of us to think about if we are taking a walk or simply walking through life.

Barbara Kofman is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on organizational effectiveness and founding principal of CareerTrails, a strategic coaching and HR Solutions organization focused on enabling individuals and organizations to resolve their work-related challenges. She has held senior roles in resourcing, strategy and outplacement, and taught at the university and college level. She can be reached at (416) 708-2880 or bkofman@careertrails.com.

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Leaders can’t do it alone (Leadership in action)

By Trish Maguire

With a collective “Cheers!” we celebrated Helen Rothberg’s leadership lessons learned through her early bartender experiences. In listening to her journey, two key questions emerged: “Do I know what I’m good at?” and “Do I know how to promote and benefit from my strengths?”

As a leader, how well can you articulate your personal values and strengths? Most people take what they are good at for granted and underestimate their true strengths. However, by asking these questions, people can learn how to self-manage their purpose and potential according to their bona fide strengths. Likewise, by fully appreciating and distinguishing people’s strengths, a talented leader can place them in roles where they excel.

I suspect, however, many leaders are weary of the seemingly endless pressures the prolonged recession and global debt crisis has brought about.

You more than likely executed at least one downsizing along with a variety of freezes and cutbacks. You may also be observing your company pulling back and adopting a more protective practice during this relentless period of economic instability. Meanwhile, your real leadership challenge may be in maintaining integrity and keeping people highly motivated, engaged and fully performing their duties. As we refresh our optimism for the new year, now may be a good time to ask: “Do I want to continue being part of the past or do I want to be part of the future?”

In the words of John F. Kennedy, “Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction. It is time for a new generation of leadership, to cope with new problems and new opportunities; for there is a new world to be won.”

Choosing to be part of the future will require new approaches and attitudes. It will require looking at the larger picture, revitalizing not only your imagination, sense of purpose, commitment, patience and perseverance, but also those of your people.

Leadership experts continue to validate that no leader achieves the extraordinary without the support of others, just as Rothberg learned.Being sensitive to the needs of others, actively listening, asking questions, developing and supporting others and asking for help will renew your leadership integrity.

Take a moment and consider this: “How do you intend to use your talents and strengths to support others?” and “How will the talents, strengths and support of others help you?”

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions, focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and organizational development in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial organizations and can be reached at synergyx@sympatico.ca.


Upcoming events

Interested in attending one of the upcoming events? Here’s a look at what’s on tap:

Beyond the CEO — the role of the board in ensuring organizations have the talent to thrive: Vince Molinaro, managing director of the leadership solutions practice at Knightsbridge, is joined by three panelists.
(Feb. 22, 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., Toronto.)

What will a rapidly shifting workplace mean to HR service delivery: Featuring Julian Chapman, vice-president at Forrest and Company. (Feb. 28, 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., Waterloo, Ont.)

For more information, visit www.scnetwork.ca.

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