Working for a distillery owner can be an enormous challenge. Okay, maybe that is an understatement – it might be one of the most difficult undertakings that many aspiring distillery professionals will face. Ours can be a murky world of financial stress, fast paced growth, strong personalities, investor expectations, expansion projects, crippling deadlines, stressful debt, difficult compliance, and in some cases, even bias and discrimination.
Even in companies committed to transparency and good employee communications, it can be difficult for an employee to see into the back room of company leadership and shine a light on what is really happening behind the scenes. At a growing distillery, things happen at such a fast pace that many employees don’t see all that is happening. It can take time to understand who the players are and what forces impact every decision. That can lead to questions for employees: Why don’t I get the responses I am looking for? Why do some things take too long or others move too fast?
The following are ten insights into working with distillery owners to shed some light into the complicated “back room” and create a collaborative working relationship.
Distillery owners have a lasting “need to know.”
One of the most common traits among owners of fast-growing distilleries is a ‘need to know’ that leads to a lot of questions for employees. The owner asks because they need to be the most informed person in the room. They don’t like surprises and they like to discover problems early. They love follow-up and loop-closing from employees. Their highest goal is to keep their workforce happy and busy, working efficiently and in coordination in good working environment. When I ask, “What are you up to today and where will you be working?” I always appreciate it when an employee responds with a list of projects and priorities, and the offer to reprioritize if needed.
The owner may prioritize problem solving differently than employees.
It can be almost impossible to see the demands and priorities weighing on an owner. It is much easier to focus on your own zone—and you should. But an owner may be fielding and prioritizing requests from many directions for new equipment, better functionality, upgrades, and even marketing dollars and sales costs. They may be experiencing seasonal fluctuations of cash flow. They may also perceive the larger impacts and repercussions from a proposed project, or they may have already tried that solution. The ideal way to handle this is to submit your wish list and ask what is rational to expect, what might need to wait and what you can run with now.
You may be asked to change your priorities or projects.
An owner is often dealing with pressures that an employee often cannot see. A distributor may be putting extra pressure on to get a purchase order shipped, a sales relationship may be stressed, an inspection may be imminent, an installation may be behind schedule. Shuffling the priority list may be critical but not easy to parse. A distillery owner loves open communication, so it’s always encouraged to ask questions: What is highest on your priority list today? How can I best support you today? This is a great team-oriented approach that will get you noticed.
Requests to approve projects and budgets are intended to balance the bigger picture.
Owners love having trusted employees who can captain projects while keeping in mind the importance of budget and strategy. Both matter. Your project may be fitting in amongst ten others. I’m always impressed when employees bring a plan – when to do it, how to do it, how much it will cost, evidence of price comparisons and research, a simple budget, and demonstrated awareness that this may or may not rise to the top of the list. You’ll be sure to impress if you advocate while understanding other demands may play a role in the outcomes. If your project gets shelved, you can always put it on the list for regular check-ins. Another time might be better.
Results speak louder than busyness.
There is an enormous spectrum of employee work ethics and styles, and there is no gold standard or best practice except the one the owner prefers. I look for employees who “show, don’t tell”. They get tasks done in a timely way with accuracy, avoid long narrations of their process, report back when tasks are complete, disclose challenges and setbacks, and move on to what comes next. Distillery owners can see who is working hard and getting results.
Distillery owners reward efficiency over hours worked.
The sum total of hours worked doesn’t always equate to accomplishment. Most owners would rather their employees work their agreed schedule with radical efficiency. If you get the forklift stuck or clog the floor drains or spend two hours cleaning up a mess you made, your extra hours feel arduous to you but have little benefit to the company. Also, recognition usually flows not to people who work the most hours, but to people who go above and beyond what is expected, and deliver projects that are tight and well executed. This can be done without excessive overtime.
Distillery owners often miss doing the things that employees get to do.
You may not see it, but a distillery owner is often being pulled in many directions: meeting with a new distributor, hosting a virtual event to promote the brand, hosting auditors, filing taxes, giving a VIP tour, logging into a Board meeting for an industry group, and handling a media interview. When this keeps them from the distillery or tasting room, it’s not a sign that they devalue that part of the company or the work done there. Many owners, in order to lead their companies to success, have been forced to move away from tasks they love and used to do every day. They train others to do the things that can be trained, and keep the tasks only they can do.
Promotions go to those who go above and beyond.
The number one trait of employees who get promoted is that, even without the title and additional pay, they show traits of leadership. Everything seems to work more smoothly and efficiently when they are involved. Those who act like a leader at the distillery and garner respect are likely to get promoted. If you’re after a promotion, embody it. Bring it to life without the title. This will not go unnoticed. The biggest advice I can give to get promoted is to go above what’s in your job description. The extra effort will be noticed and likely rewarded.
Distillery owners want to share the spotlight and the successes.
Owners want to bring attention to their team, but in the world of media, titles like “owner” and “founder” have cache. The owner may have a longer and more detailed story to tell of the company origins. Journalists usually want to interview the person with the highest positions. If you have a high position at your company, let your boss know if you’re interested in media opportunities. There may be ways to cultivate these for you. An employee can also rise to recognition in their own right by joining industry groups, participating in industry events, networking, giving time to industry projects, or rising above the fray in other ways to gain attention for themselves.
Distillery owners appreciate the courage to have tough conversations.
Cultivating the skills to bridge hard topics with an owner is the most important skill set of all. A work relationship is like a marriage. You don’t throw in the towel at the first or even the second sign of a challenge. You also can’t ignore issues and wait for them to build to a breaking point. A few suggestions to raise tough topics: Make an appointment with enough time. Don’t blindside the owner on a busy Monday morning on their way out the door. Ask a ton of questions. Be specific and avoid general like “You always…” and “You never…”. Own something that you can do better so they can be receptive to what they can do better. Don’t be defensive, accusatory or blow up in anger, even if your boss does. This can be disastrous. Maintain a professional demeanor. Start with some listening. Come prepared with ideas and suggestions. Think of and point out some things you love about your job. Don’t let conversations escalate to a shouting match. Role play with a trusted friend in advance, so you practice staying focused and on track.
Growing a distillery is exciting and rewarding, yet even companies with stout investor backing contend with enormous demands and pressures. By keeping these factors in mind, you position yourself as a collaborative partner to a distillery owner and all coworkers in your company. As a team, you’ll accomplish more, support the company’s needs, and help the distillery owner achieve a dream they’ve been working on for a long time. A collaborative and efficient team is an owner’s greatest joy.