How To Be A Great Boss


Having employees is kinda nerve-wracking. In the food industry it’s especially hard to find great employees who will stick around – we just seem to have an ever-revolving door of staff.I’m enormously proud that my ex-employees still tell me I was their favourite boss. One ex-employee still has dinner at my house a few times a month, and the other called me and convinced me to join the same gym so we could chat a few times a week, simply because she missed me. I’d venture to say those are good indicators that I was a pretty great boss – even though I had plenty of people who didn’t turn up for interviews, people who left after one shift, some very dodgy people who lied in interviews, and some people who I had to let go. People are people and that makes employee management an adventure.

If you’re just starting to think about hiring, I recommend you read these articles: Top Tips for Hiring and HR for Cakers 101. If however you’ve made it through the hiring process and found someone who has stuck around longer than five minutes, you’re probably wondering how to keep these people happy and be the kind of awesome boss people talk about long after they have left. The challenges here are that most of us have not been a boss before, and in the beginning our entire workforce
might only consist of ourselves and one other person. This doesn’t mean you can’t be a great boss, it just means you might be learning as you go – and that’s probably one of my first tips: if you can, do a short class on leadership and communication. You’ll learn so much about the skills needed to manage different personalities and have difficult conversations that it’s worth the time and money investment.


Here are my top tips for how to be a truly great boss (in no particular order):

  1. Make it clear that you’re in this together – so if they give a little, you give a little.  I was happy to offer a flexible workplace so that Moms could pick up kids, people could go to dentist appointments and that they could have a life outside of work. However, I made it clear that my flexibility was in exchange for THEIR flexibility. So if we had huge orders and they needed to work a bit longer or come in on a Sunday (not a work day), I expected them to be flexible enough to help out outside of those times.  You can’t always predict that corporate order for 5000 cookies or that their child will get sick on their way to work. Flexibility is key as long as it’s clear that it goes both ways. Check in with them regularly too – a quick “How are you doing? Is there anything happening you want to chat about?” goes a long way if they’ve sat on an issue but are too scared to bring it up. That’s especially useful if you THINK they are sitting on an issue as it opens the door for them.
  2. Make rewards not always monetary and not always expected – I liked to reward people not just for a job well done but also in appreciation of their loyalty. If we had a huge crazy job that took up crazy amounts of time then sure, I’d reward that but I also tried to reward things just for the hell of it. No specific performance reason, just a way of expressing my gratitude for their service. Sure, they get paid to work but isn’t it nice to get something a bit extra? Buy lunch once in a while, bring them flowers, buy them a coffee and a cookie on your next coffee run. The little details make people feel very loved and love breeds loyalty. Being a truly great boss is about love as much as anything else.
  3. Lead by example in your words, behaviour, appearance – Much like children, employees will mimic your behaviour. So if you’re showing up late, wearing a dirty apron, and hanging up the phone and talking shit about customers, don’t be surprised when they do they same thing. YOU SET THE STANDARD in your business and they will follow that standard. Especially in a small business you want it to be, “This is how the boss does it so this is how I do it,” attitude. Sure, the boss gets more liberties (she IS the boss after all) but not so many that employees start doubting why you have standards in the first place.
  4. Own up if you screw up, then offer a solution Plenty of times I messed up things in my business and it directly affected my employees. I underestimated the amount of work (or over estimated it so they got fewer hours than they wanted), I messed up payroll, I told them the wrong time or flavour for something and so on. Bosses are human beings too. The leadership piece comes into it when you realise your mistake, honestly own up to it, then offer a solution to the problem. Like this: “Caitlin, I’m so sorry but I messed payroll up. That means your pay is going to be $500 short. I can fix it but it will take a few days for the bank to process the payment. If that’s a problem and you need it now, I can just give it to you in cash instead.”  If it directly impacts them, don’t lie or try to bamboozle them with bullshit excuses. Honesty is expected from them, so you need to give them honesty in return. “Sarah, I told you that cake was vanilla but it was meant to be chocolate. Do we have a spare chocolate 8 inch in the freezer? Otherwise we’re going to need to bake – so if you can get that in the oven, I can take over the piping on the one you’re working on.”hands-731265_640
  5. Treat it seriously and they will, too – Whether you’ve got one or ten employees, take YOUR job as a boss seriously. This means having an employee handbook, proper rules for clocking in and out, clear rules about what things are tolerated and what are not, clear expectations of what you expect out of them and what they will get from you, a once yearly performance review (or more.) You’ve heard me say, “Your Business, Your Rules” and inherent in that is that you’ve got to HAVE RULES first. If your attitude to their job and your management of their job is, “Yeah, whatever, I really should get around to it,” theirs will be too.
  6. Invest in them and they will invest in you – look for opportunities to increase their skills and cross-skill them. Send them to classes (not just cake ones although that’s a start), teach them how to do other parts of your business. I encouraged my employees to go to school (one got her pastry degree) and I gave them the time and space to do that. Ultimately the better they are, the better your business will become.

It’s a great honour to know that your business provides for more than just one family, and it’s a great joy when you can witness people thriving under your leadership.  I don’t think being a great boss is something you are born to, I think it’s something you learn over time. You’ll screw up sometimes – or worse, people will screw you – but it’s all part of the learning process.

Truly, I haven’t told you anything magical. By our nature humans like to be loved, to have boundaries, to know that they matter to other humans, to know that others screw up sometimes too. To be a great boss you have to start by being a great human and the rest will follow.


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