What Did I Learn from Working Behind a Bar About People Management and Leadership?

Decision Making in Business: Reflecting on My Volunteer Experience

The music of a local blues band was getting everyone in the tent to jive. Our marquee held about 150 people. A bar at one end and a small stage at the other. In between were the punters. They’d come to the music festival wearing hats they’d never wear in public, clothes like a 70’s hippy and an attitude to get drunk, be mellow and party. It was the Beacon Festival 2019 in Oxfordshire, UK. I had volunteered to help behind the bar. A great experience that helped me to further understand how people managed, made decisions, and how leaders lead.  Let me take you back to the beginning…

My First Time Behind a Bar

I’d never worked behind a bar before. Let alone a music festival bar.  The bar is not yet open. I stand behind it. Feels good. Everyone loves a bar and a barman. To the left are 30 barrels of craft beer on racks, a 4 feet gap, and then a bar stretching the width of the tent. About 15 metres long by half a metre. We are setting-up ready for the off at 6 pm. It’s a Friday in June and the weekend music festival is about to begin. As more volunteers roll-in we are each briefed on challenge 25, how to pull a pint, where to put the cash and to sign a form that we know what we’re doing.

The Evening Begins

There are 4 of us serving and a guy that volunteers his time more than the rest of us. He runs the bar. Is part of the committee and helped to start this festival a few years back. All for charity. He’s learnt how to make the bar work and now takes it all in his stride.
We start serving. This isn’t too bad. Four pints of Midsummer, and two wines. Got it. Worked out the change and another customer leaves drinks in hand. As we serve, new volunteers arrive, the bar manager shows them what to do, and they join the team. We introduce ourselves on the way from one end of the bar to the other and you hope that the Cocktail (Film) moment will happen where you move in sync with the other staff as you turn around from the barrels to the counter, duck the barrels spurting as a new one gets tapped, and don’t walk into each other as you try to be efficient walking up and down the bar. Sometimes you are. Mostly not.

Then the crowd arrives from nowhere at around 9 pm. Finished work and made their way over.

The tension grows as the punters are now 6 deep. Another volunteer arrives and is thrown into the fray. We make mistakes with change. With orders. With each other. A loud band starts playing on the stage just to increase the challenge. It’s only a bar. It’s only a music festival. People are generally in a happy mood on both sides of the bar. Well, until they’ve been waiting 10 minutes to order and not been seen in the order they think is right. I hear from another volunteer, ‘No Pimm’s’. No-one has made any. ‘Why have we got no soft drinks?’. ‘There’s no water’. ‘How do you work this bloody card machine?’. Tension increases. Stress has arrived. Everyone is feeling it.

People lining up in a bar

Tension increases. Stress has arrived. Everyone is feeling it

The bar manager comes back from his meeting with the other committee members about a problem with the security at the gate. He asks Mike to start making Pimm’s. Shows him how to do it. Then he goes to the trailer out the back and starts bringing-in soft drinks and water. The parents are sozzled and the kids are wanting a drink. He gives me the keys and says, ‘Look after this. We need pound coins because we’ll run out soon’. I think I may have got it. I was wanting to volunteer and just serve, but he needed some help and I could see that I was serving. Just serving and hoping all was going to be ok. It wasn’t. Even this situation was teaching me how to understand people management and leadership better. Easier.

Anticipating Future Decision Making

For the first time that evening, I started to look ahead. I lifted my head. I was now not thinking of the immediate problems at the bar. They were being dealt with as best they could. I was seeing the problems that were coming in 30 minutes. If this crowd continues we needed more staff. If the wine stock depletes at this rate, we’ll run out. The ice is getting low, and the Pimm’s will be out again. On the rota was back-up volunteers, I texted them. Mike did the Pimm’s. Sarah re-stocked the wine. And in between serving I showed people how to use the card machine.
The Bar Manager came back. He started pulling the £50, £20, and £10 notes from the cash register. ‘We have a security drop in an hour’ and we need to start counting the cash’. He was looking an hour ahead. Matilda hasn’t had a break yet. Ask her to grab a beer and go and watch the band. The Aztec beer will run out in a while. We’ll need to be ready to cross it off all the boards and menus. He was looking further ahead than I was. Another level. He opened a large tub of gummy bears and put them next to the cash register. ‘That’ll keep them going’. He’d bought some sweets as a little morale boost for the staff. ‘Love the red ones’, I heard. Brilliant.

Levels of Leadership

A guru once told me that being a people manager was a bit like a James Bond film. One of those scenes where our 007 is in the room about to crack the safe and the camera swings to show us that a bomb is ticking under the desk. A people manager looks ahead and shares with his/her people that the bomb is under the desk. They share what is coming. What they cannot see. They look further head. Spot the problems and share them for us to deal with. A leader is the one that knew the bomb would be there because it always is. They tell us we’ve been here before, we’ll be ok, and we’ll get passed it.

Decision Making Model

So, what did working in a bar remind me about people management and leadership? That there are 3 levels. And those levels depend on how high you want to lift your chin to look further ahead. To identify the problems and to start solving them before they become real problems.

Levels of managerial decision making chart

Levels of Managerial Decision Making

In many ways, this experience encapsulated how businesses and business leaders make decisions in a broader sense.  It gave me the opportunity to reflect on the skills it takes to build and lead a successful business. In short, the three types of decision making I witnessed in one evening reminded me of the management decision making that occurs in all businesses:

  1. Operational decision making: The day-to-day decisions that have a short term impact on the company.
  2. Tactical decision making: These contain greater detail, are taken at a higher level and typically require greater resources and time.
  3. Strategic decision making: These are taken at the highest level of the company by the CEO and board of directors. These are the decisions and plans that have a long term and significant impact on the company and its allocation of resources.

What I witnessed in a few hours as a barman was a microcosm of leadership decision making. If we view the bar as a ‘business’. The Bar staff serve = Operational. The bar manager looks 30 minutes ahead = Tactical. Finally, the bar leader looks an hour ahead = Strategic.

What Did I Take Away From the Evening?

It was a great experience that allowed me to reflect and further consider the decision making processes in businesses. By stepping away from my norm I got to experience leadership and people management in a different context. Moreover, I could reflect on what I witnessed without being caught up with the intricacies of my own business. Initially, I did it to get away from soft skills. From training. From managing my business. But what I learnt will stay with me forever. A training course that could never be designed.

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