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How Do We Scale Culture?

Let's Talk, People Ep 7 with Lee Harrison, COO Joe Coffee

EMILY: [00:00:00] Hi, I'm Emily Frieze-Kemeny, host of Let's Talk People, where leaders come to bridge humanity and profitability. Informed by a couple decades of work as a head of talent and leadership development, I'm here to amplify leaders so they can exalt everyone and everything they touch.

Are you ready? Cause it's about to get real.

[00:00:28] Let's talk people.

EMILY: [00:00:34] In today's episode, I'm joined by Lee Harrison, Chief Operations Officer at Joe Coffee Company. If you are currently or were once a New Yorker, like I am, you likely have come across one of the many retail locations of Joe Coffee throughout the city.  And they also have a thriving wholesale business.

Joe Coffee is private equity backed, and if you know [00:01:00] Danny Meyer and Union Square Hospitality Group, then you know their investment in Joe Coffee speaks for itself.

[00:01:07] Lee rose through the ranks, having spent time in almost every position within Joe Coffee over 18 years. He stabilized profitability at the company, post-pandemic, and has spearheaded what he refers to as ethical sourcing, having an internal advocacy team that helps them to make the most value-aligned decisions for their brand.

[00:01:30] Lee credits so much of his success to his many mentors, but especially to the mentorship and leadership of Joe Coffey's founder and CEO, Jonathan Rubenstein.

A few things we're going to unpack on the episode is the value of leaders who truly see people, see their genius, their passion, and can align it to the work.

[00:01:54] Also, we're going to get into how do you hire the best, and the people who are the right [00:02:00] fit for your organization. We all get really tripped up with making hiring decisions. It's hard.

And when is structure enabling at work, and when does it become a constraint? So how do you scale with the right degree of structure?

[00:02:12] And how do you scale culture? Culture is held with leaders. So as an organization gets bigger, how do you make your impact scale?

All right, let's get into it!

EMILY: Lee, I'm so excited to extend a conversation that you and I have been having one to one over a couple of meetings with. With this community of Let's Talk People, we have found so many things that we share, I think, in terms of values and hopes and dreams for the world of work, and maybe just the world of people all together, that we have found commonality around.

[00:02:48] And I'm so excited and grateful that you are joining me and that we can have this kind of broader community conversation.

LEE: Thank you. I am too. I've loved talking to you. It's so enriching.

EMILY: I feel the same [00:03:00] way. And anybody who knows me would not be surprised that we found our way to knowing each other through Marjorie Ramos, your former Chief People Officer, who's fantastic as well.

[00:03:10] Because there's two things that I hold dear that I think we share in common, which is how important it is to be really thoughtful and intentional about how we lead and how that creates dynamics within organizations.  And that as human beings, another part of the journey is being really thoughtful and reflective about our own human, experience and the way that we show up in the world.

[00:03:35] And those are just kind of two of the themes that I think have connected us and why it has been so easy to have these deep and meaningful conversations so quickly, and getting to know each other, and why I'm so excited for us to kind of jump in and to talk about, you know, really the world of work and what you're seeing within your organization, Joe Coffee.  And, you know, just some points of view around maybe the hopes and dreams [00:04:00] we have for the future.

LEE: [00:04:00] Yeah, I love that.  And Marjorie, yes, I would just comment on Marjorie who’s, I think, strikes a great balance of humanity and structure and business management. I've learned so much from her. I've been so inspired by her. So I'm glad that you've called her out and credited her.

EMILY:  I think that your journey of how you got to leadership is so important and has. in no doubt, shaped who you are, how you treat people, how you lead, how you think about the interpersonal and business dynamics at work.

[00:04:33] Lee, I want to start by getting into how your career started, because at a really young age, you were really clear on how you wanted to learn and embarked on a learning journey that led you to a senior leadership position in an incredible company that's growing. And it may be different than what people might expect.

LEE: [00:04:54] Yeah, sure. I would say it's been an accidental career in a lot of ways, although it's also been really intentional.  But in the [00:05:00] very beginning, I had a sense for what I wanted to do and what I wanted to learn and how I would get there.  Or at the time, probably more so, how I was not getting there. And the decision that I made that you're referring to probably is that I left high school. [00:05:15] I dropped out of high school when I was a teenager.

And I had been working in a coffee shop in the town where I grew up as an afterschool and weekend job and recognized that as a skill that I could take anywhere. So I left school because I was actually eager and hungry to learn. And I didn't just leave school, I left home.

[00:05:37] The experience I got working in the cafe after school allowed me to get a job with Joe Coffee, actually, when I would turn 18, which was almost 20 years ago.  I interviewed with Jonathan Rubenstein, the founder, and he hired me.

I deepened that skill and learned new skills and I ended up traveling around the country a little bit, knowing that I could get a job [00:06:00] anywhere with this barista skill.

[00:06:01] And I wanted to see America. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to learn from real people. I wanted to learn from being in cities. And, you know, what's beneath the skyline. And I wanted to smell the Pacific ocean and not just read about it.

And, you know, ultimately started on a professional path. It was because I was inspired by managers and leaders that I encountered [00:06:28] who took me under their wing and took care of me. And especially when I was really young, and I was in a city far from home, uh, protected me in some ways.  But you know, I have so many role models and examples of great leaders who took me under their wing that I can't even count.  It would take the whole hour to talk through each of them.

[00:06:49] But my plan was not to become, you know, an executive at a coffee company. But that's what ended up happening because I was inspired by it. And the passion that I developed was [00:07:00] for leadership, because I recognized how much impact a manager of a coffee shop has on the people who work there, and the culture.  And how much impact, you know, middle management has on the manager of the coffee shop.  And how much impact eventually, you know, I saw and learned about how much impact an executive can have on that whole ecosystem.

[00:07:21] And it's not one person, but I've been inspired by stepping into those roles to sort of create the conditions that benefit the people who rely on those that are in positions of power. That's what really inspires me.

EMILY: I love that because it's because of how you were treated that you wanted to be like that, which is such a positive story.

[00:07:41] So many of us have really mixed experiences with leadership. So I think the fact that you have more than you can even name is such a testament that you were supposed to have that experience in life, and to be shaped, you know, through those lived experiences to become a leader, even if that wasn't the [00:08:00] plan from the start.

[00:08:01] There's two things I was curious about. So one is I think a lot of people take a longer time in their career journeys to figure out how they want to learn, and the experiences they want to have.  Like how did you know and trust at such an early age that your form of learning and your passion was to go be there in the world? To kind of [00:08:22] be in it with people working in coffee shops, traveling and living in different parts of the country. Like, how did you know and permission yourself to trust that? Because I think even as somebody, you know, in midlife, I see a lot of people who struggle with listening to themselves, and trusting their instincts around what's best for them, and what they want to pursue.

LEE: [00:08:42] Yeah. Well, that's such a great question. And I reflect on that a lot. Part of it, I think is just the folly of youth, you know, like jumping off the cliff.  And I definitely had, you know, an instinct, and even to some degree, an explicit idea about what I wanted to [00:09:00] do.  And looking back, I was very much on a path, but the tolerance and capacity to take those risks is much greater, at least for me.  You know, looking back, I didn't even think about the risks.  I just followed my instinct.

[00:09:14] Although, I guess if we rewind a little bit further, my first role models were people that I met in high school that helped me see that there was a different path that recognized something in me, and encouraged the things that I was good at, and helped me to develop my strengths, even though they were a little bit in conflict with, you know, the normal path that's laid out for a person.

[00:09:40] So there were people that recognized what I cared about and what I was interested in and helped me to see that that was possible. So when I reflect on that, that's part of my attitude or the spirit of my work now, because those people were adults.  They were courageous and encouraging somebody to follow a different path.

[00:09:59] One of [00:10:00] them was Ralph Gennetti, who, you know, like we thanked Marjorie, he was really one of the first people.  And he was my boss at that coffee shop job after school. And he's still a friend of mine. He comes in, he comes to our house and spends time with our kids. He's been a friend all through my life now.

[00:10:17] And he was one of the first people that really said, well, he didn't say, but he helped me go in this direction and encouraged and supported me on this.

So I think to some degree, you know, the risk tolerance was a little bit lower, although it's — it has influenced who I am now. And I recognize now because of that, that it's important to take those risks.

[00:10:41] But it was also from an early age, having those role models and people in positions of authority or power who said it's okay. And created kind of a safe place, not just physically, but in the relationship, to take those risks and, you know, the risk of failure is less [00:11:00] consequential when you have a friend in an authority position who's supportive and encouraging.

EMILY: [00:11:07] I think there are two things here that are so important.

The first thing you said, that maybe it's easier when we're young because we don't know all the things that could go wrong or maybe there's less life pressures. However, that ability to know that you have instincts and to follow what interests you and your passions and your curiosities, I think that is a recipe for success in life. [00:11:34] Professional success, joy, fulfillment. And sometimes it's the other things around us, the other adults, the other colleagues, the other leaders who almost teach us out of listening to ourselves. So I think there is a lesson in that that's so important for how we cultivate the best in other people, and how we listen deeply to ourselves.

[00:11:56] And then I think the second part of what you said, because I [00:12:00] did want to hear an example of one of those kinds of what I call almost like everyday leaders, right? The people who maybe are not seen and known by the masses but have such profound impacts on people like you or I and others, is that they see you.  And they not only see you, but they encourage you to be you.

[00:12:19] And maybe it's because there is a values alignment or there's something about what you are interested in that they're also interested in.  But I think some of the best leaders, it has nothing to do with their own agenda or their own philosophy on their career or life. It's just they see you, and to help someone to feel supported, to follow a path that feels right, to make decisions that feel right, to [00:12:43] seek learning in the ways that feel right for them, is such a powerful gift.

LEE: Yeah, I think you're exactly right.  And actually, as you say that, I, one of the things that I've recognized in this specific example with Ralph, as I've gotten to know him as an adult over the years and our [00:13:00] friendship has evolved, and we're very different people.

[00:13:02] We don't always agree. We have different values on some things, not the most important things, but it is exactly that. One of the things that I think I really learned from him initially was this, like how to apply this hunger for life that he had, which is, you know, an openness. And for me, you know, there's a quality of awareness that is tinted with curiosity, that allows somebody like him to see people for who they are, but also to engage with the world around them in a different way.

[00:13:35] It took a long time for that to become a professional path, because these are people who own paths like Ralph's path to owning a business. Was this winding path through his love for life that, that eventually landed him where he was and I would say all of the role models that I've had have had this quality that is rooted in a love for life, and an [00:14:00] awareness of the people around them, and a curiosity that's allowed them to engage in that way that you're describing, to really clearly see the people and the environment and the situations and engage in, you know, a way that has a quality of integrity to that lust for life.

EMILY: [00:14:20] I think you're actually getting to the heart of what led us to even have this conversation, and why we thought it was so important to engage with a broader audience around.

What parts of being a really impactful, uplifting, humanly connected leader is innate and is just who we are or is tied to the self-work that we've committed to do, and what parts of it can be taught?

[00:14:46] Because one of the things that you and I were talking about that I think a lot of leaders grapple with, especially ones who have built a business or built an organization, is so much of it is the imprint of who you are as a leader.  Like just the [00:15:00] way you show up and treat people, and what you role-model creates a culture. 

And the more the organization grows, and the more people who are in roles and have responsibilities to lead others that can get diluted, and there's more [00:15:17] kind of chance to the human experience at work. There's more risk. There's more different experiences that people might have, depending on who they work for and work with. And so I think one of the things that would be helpful, maybe for us to explore together, is trying to get at the “how”.  Like what are the teachable moments we think are there, that you've seen and experienced and are trying to do yourself now, in a senior leadership role as the chief operating officer for Joe coffee.

How do we render some of this explicit? [00:15:48] How do we teach some of this? How do we scale some of this great leadership behavior that feels so innate within the great leaders we've experienced, and at least the parts that we hope we hold within [00:16:00] ourselves.

LEE: This is why you and I have had so much fun talking, and you know, the question that you're asking is really challenging.

[00:16:07] I don't think that there's one succinct answer to answer that question, sort of is the work, and it's an ongoing practice. And, you know, as you ask it, I'm thinking about this conference that I just went to, and I can't help thinking about it because the keynote speaker who I just listened to before I joined you, was a Professor Snook from Harvard Business School.

[00:16:29] And he was talking about this exact question: which parts are natural and which parts are teachable. And made this really great point that it's not either or, it's about cultivating an environment where people feel safe, bringing their natural self to the work and part of that is, you know, the tone is set by the leader to create the conditions that are safe, to help people come into the work in that way.

[00:16:53] And then it's sort of because of power dynamics.  It's sort of on the leader to get to know the people that they [00:17:00] work with. You know, in my role, it's it's my responsibility to get to know the other leaders in the business, the directors and the managers, to understand what that quality is that they bring, and to create the conditions where they feel safe bringing that forward.

[00:17:16] And to me, the question is, you know, how do we build that into the structural DNA of the business?  Because the quality that we're talking about is always, there's always a natural quality.  You know, there's not a template.  It's not something that's like patterned, that you can recognize.  There's this natural organic quality that people bring that's different every time.  And finding how to connect that to the work is where we create magic.

[00:17:46] I think traditional structure of businesses often comes in conflict with that. And I see that a lot in our day to day. I think the starting point is hiring and then figuring out how to find the balance between that organic quality and the [00:18:00] structure of the business.

EMILY: Hiring is definitely one of the things that all organizations both prioritize, talk about a lot and really struggle with. [00:18:09] So let's get into a little bit of how that's evolving for you at Joe Coffee?

LEE: This is one of those things that I don't think there's one answer. What we look for is different in each position. And I, there are examples of when it's worked.  But it's different when we're hiring in the cafes for people who are going to work in customer service, [00:18:28] and when we're hiring in the office for people who are going to work in administrative or executive management positions.  And in the cafes, I think I really enjoy interviewing employees who are going to work in the hospitality, like the customer service hospitality setting.  Because when they're going to be good at it, you know, you can feel it.

[00:18:49] They enjoy the conversation.  You can recognize that quality of just like a love for life, a love of people, really enjoying engaging a [00:19:00] curiosity. I don't know what to name it and it, it looks different in different people, but it's to me after, you know, years and years and hundreds of interviews, probably for me, it's really easy to recognize that quality when I see it.

EMILY:  [00:19:13] So I think that that goes to kind of our million-dollar question that we've been grappling with, which is what you now can feel and sense and know, could you teach that like could you train other people to be able to assess that in an interview?

LEE: Yes, I think you can.  I don't think we've proven that yet in our business, but I believe you can.  I think there are systems that you can create.  So at Joe, we've created a hiring committee program where people are trained to use a scorecard that has certain points. It doesn't tell you what questions to ask. [00:19:51] It just tells you what skills or qualities we're looking for in a person. And you rate on a one to five [00:20:00] scale. And that helps us sort of create this objective measure across many different people who interview.

So the training is just a calibration to help people understand what to look for. I think it's really important that we're not giving people the interview questions.  And we're not saying it's not a black or white answer that you're looking for. [00:20:22] It's not A or B. We're measuring for these qualities.

EMILY: Yeah, I'm a big believer in this.  I do think you can identify what it really is that differentiates people.  Not only who are good at it, but like love to do it. Like they get joy from the work. It's one of the things I feel we need more of is this ability to [00:20:46] not just assess whether somebody is capable, but whether it aligns to their passion. And so will they get joy and feel motivated to perform and doing the role that they're being interviewed for?

LEE: Yeah, I love that point [00:21:00] that you make about whether they'll get joy out of it. I think that's so important.

[00:21:03] And when I think about our successes and failures, I think it's really a matter of designing that hiring scorecard to reflect the values to get to the heart of that question. Will this person get joy out of the work? And if I say that it's not proven yet in our business, it's because I don't think that we've perfected the hiring scorecard yet.

[00:21:24] I don't think it perfectly reflects those qualities that we want to look for in people. And we have a project on our list to rework the scorecards for all of the different positions that we hire for, and make sure that they are really speaking to the heart of that kind of abstract question.

EMILY: [00:21:45] We all try really hard to get our hiring decisions right. And myself included, we don't always nail it. What's an example of a time where the hiring decision didn't go as expected and, you know, what there is to learn from it? [00:22:00] 

LEE: Yeah, I think I have one example in mind, and there was a person that we hired that everybody was really excited about, and actually worked for us for a few years and, and was good at the job, but I think lacked passion.

[00:22:14] There was a passion that we recognized when we hired, but it wasn't, it wasn't the right passion, if that makes sense. So over time, as the work unfolded, it became clear that this person's passion became toxic, almost like what they were passionate about was not aligned with what we were doing. You know, looking back, if we could go back in time, there were red flags.

[00:22:36] And I think there's, you know, learnings from that. If we could take each red flag and pull it out, and turn it into a point on the hiring scorecard, that's really the task that's ahead of us.

And I also would have been more clear and direct. That's been a major learning for me. Over the years in my leadership position, I think especially in the early years, I was a little [00:23:00] bit too gentle with people. [00:23:01] I didn't want to hurt people with feedback or, you know, I didn't want to be disrespectful.

And this is one of those things. Maybe I learned it more slowly than others. And actually, Marjorie was somebody that really helped me with this.  But it took me a long time to learn that the feedback is actually, it's a generosity. [00:23:18] It's a gift that you can give to somebody to help them understand where they stand in the organization, and what they need to do to align or decide whether or not they can or want to align. But yeah, I think we misread the passion initially, and we didn't have our questions right in the hiring process.

[00:23:36] And that was before our hiring committee and the scorecard and all of that. But I think about that a lot as an example of things that we can pull out to help design the points and the values that we use in interviewing and hiring somebody.

EMILY: You brought up this point around structure, and given what you had said about like, what's the good and the ugly of [00:24:00] structure in organizations. [00:24:00] I think this islet's go there because this is a good example of it.

Because what you just shared is structure has made your hiring process better.  And it's allowed you to find people who are going to thrive and find joy and passion, and will achieve high performance because of structure, because of the scorecard, because of the hiring committee, from being really thoughtful and intentional about what qualities you're looking for in people.[00:24:25] So that's like a really good example of structure.

How did you come to that? So how do you come to the right structure for the right reasons?  And where does structure have this kind of yuckiness quality to it that maybe gets in the way of people bringing their own unique genius to the work?

 LEE: I love this question. [00:24:48] And there's a really interesting backstory for how we got to the hiring committee. And you know, generally speaking, what the right structure should be, I think is [00:25:00] a question that requires really deep consideration and reflection by the leaders who build structure, because it's so impactful.

So that's an important thing for me  is [00:25:13] taking the time myself to contemplate what we're designing and why, and who does it serve and why, how is it connected to our values? How is it connected to our vision? And you know, of course, before that, it starts with setting your values and defining and articulating your vision. It should — structure should flow from your values always, [00:25:37] for me. 

It should always flow from your values, and a business should always have stated values. Those are the flags that you plant that people recognize, and are drawn to or are able to say, this is not for me. So we have stated values. We have a stated vision, which is a work in progress always.  And [00:26:00] the structure flows from that.

[00:26:01] And I think where structure gets ugly or goes awry is when you lose sight of your values, you lose sight of your vision, and structure becomes arbitrary.  I've seen a lot of business leaders fail when they think about the business as like a business exercise, like they've come out of business school or their career executives that go from company to company.

[00:26:26] And not that that's a bad thing.  But I've seen examples where it becomes too abstract or too theoretical, and it becomes disconnected from the day to day, the people, the relationship between people, and how that innate or organic quality that we were talking about manifests in the business.  So structure has to serve that, which you know, for us, I know how to define it.

EMILY: [00:26:52] One thing that I sometimes observe in my work is that the values are not real, that the values are an [00:27:00] aspiration, but it's not actually the lived experience of the people who work there. So what you're saying that needs to be rendered explicit, that I believe and know from getting to know you, is that the values are very personal for the people who work at Joe coffee, and who lead Joe coffee.

[00:27:18] So the values are who you are, I think. And I've done this exercise a number of times where when you ask people to share what their values are, you have a better time creating organizational values from the place of understanding the alignment of people's personal values, versus kind of coming up with some aspirational, dreamy state of what values should be.

[00:27:39] The other thing that you sparked for me when I was listening to you is, it's not just because this is needed, but it's not just leaders sitting in a room and ensuring there's that alignment, which by the way, that step gets skipped all the time. So that in and of itself is like life changing for leadership to really say, well, we're putting this structure and this process and these [00:28:00] controls and measurements and such, in place.

[00:28:02] How does this show our values in action? How does it align? That to me is already like mind blowing change.

And you said something that goes with that that is so important, which is to understand the impact of those structural decisions through the eyes of the people who are going to be enacting them, and upholding them, and living them. Which also is the step that gets missed along the way. 

And when you had talked about the kind of leaders coming in to a new organization, I think that I hear a lot of language often in those leaders who join an organization, which is, this is what's worked before. [00:28:39] And it is important for us, of course, to learn from what's worked and what hasn't worked. But there's like a freshness that needs to be brought to a new environment to see it for what it is, and to see the uniqueness of it as well.

 LEE: Yeah, I think for me, the reflection and contemplation is so important, and that is an aspect of awareness: [00:29:00] taking in your environment, being aware in every moment, in every interaction that you have, getting to know the people [00:29:07] that I work closely with here in the office.  But also getting to know people in the cafes.  Really making sure that you understand the business and the environments as much as possible.

And then I love the way you said how structures bring values to life. That's exactly how I think about it all the time.

[00:29:27] The structures have to bring your values to life. That's how we, in a business that's scaling, I think back to Ralph, and in my first job, and what he was to me, — and how can we design a business that is that for people structurally: that serves, that brings the values to life in a way that people can actually feel and experience.  And it's maybe a little bit intangible, but I think there is a way to find that balance with structure.

[00:29:56] And then I want to talk about how we came to the hiring committee [00:30:00] because it's really interesting. And it was a group effort that started with our values actually.

So we have at Joe, we have the four C's, which is craft, community, commitment, and curiosity. We've taken the four C's and we've transformed them into, you know, different parts of the business.

[00:30:19] So we took that and interpreted it to define what it means for coffee supply, the coffee supply stream. What does this mean for our coffee sourcing values? Because coffee, you know, there's all these geopolitical and economic dynamics in coffee that affect the value and the, you know, all the way up to the consumer.

[00:30:41] So we set those values in coffee sourcing, and then we did it, on the reset retail side too. We tried to innovate on how the business is run by creating a staff advocacy committee to bring a wider group of people into the higher level decision making. 

That was in [00:31:00] 2019. And it didn't last long because of the pandemic, which shut us down and disbanded. [00:31:05] We had to lay off 90 percent of our employees, like most people did.  But during that time, during the pandemic, the few people that were still working in the business continued that work. And it was in direct response a lot of the time to the social transformation that was happening during those years.

[00:31:26] So at Joe, we heard the call of our community here in New York for people in positions of power to reflect on power dynamics, to reflect on racism and what that means in businesses, to reflect on patriarchy and what that means in businesses. And we created an anti racism committee that did work during those years that ultimately resulted in a few things. [00:31:53] One of them being the hiring committee, which was originally intended to eliminate bias in the hiring [00:32:00] process.

By creating objective benchmarks that people were scored on without looking so that, you know, the hiring committee could send those to managers and the managers were looking at the objective scores rather than the resume or the name or anything like that. [00:32:16] That process has evolved quite a bit.  And now the anti racism committee, we realize that we needed to expand the scope of that.

And this is one of the things that I'm passionate about. And it's been creative and this great collaborative effort that's evolved into the Ethical Business Council, which is a wider group of employees that includes executive employees, [00:32:41] Directors and department leads, hourly employees, baristas from all different parts of the business who come together.  It's intended to come together on a quarterly basis to discuss how we build structure, to discuss our strategies, so that those things are informed by, you know, who are actually [00:33:00] doing the work every day.  Because I'm not.  I'm doing my own work every day. [00:33:03] I, you know, working morning to night most days, but I'm not doing the work of the barista in the cafes, and I'm not doing the work of the coffee roaster. So that process has evolved.

EMILY: One of the biggest challenges I'm seeing in organizations is just so much distance there is between leadership and employees and, not intentionally, but it's almost like everybody's pointing their fingers of frustration at one another, because they're not coming together in collaborative problem solving ways.

[00:33:36] So this idea of bringing people of different experience levels, job levels, roles, together to talk strategy and structure is extremely important and progressive.  And I'm not seeing it a lot of other places and I, I think that this is something we really need to do.  It’s like that's how you shrink an organization and [00:34:00] get the right [00:34:01] inputs to decision making.

LEE: Yeah, I think it's pretty bold, and we spent a long time working on it. You know, we labored over the mission statement. We labored over the values. We took those four C's and interpreted them for the Ethical Business Council. We really put a lot of work in this, and into this and tried to open it up, sort of diverse scrutiny to make sure that we were doing it right.

[00:34:23] It's bold in the sense that being vulnerable as a business, there have been a lot of tough conversations, and I expect more when you open it up in that way.  You're opening yourself up to all the difficult questions about your structure and your strategies that often go unsaid or unheard. And it's easier that way.

[00:34:44] There's a different kind of work that goes into doing it this way that I think takes courage from business leaders. And, you know, I see the people around me being courageous.  The leaders that I work with, that helped to build this and the [00:35:00] baristas and the managers that have contributed to it, I see them being courageous in that way.

[00:35:04] And if they weren't, it wouldn't work. It would be, it would feel empty. It would feel like it would be counterproductive in a way, if you don't go into it with that integrity and that same spirit of presence and awareness that we've talked about in the other parts of the business. It'll fall flat and it'll, it'll make it seem like a performance.

EMILY: [00:35:27] Yeah. I mean, it's interesting because part of the reason we create hierarchical structures is efficiency of decision making. If you think you can move fast because you get fewer people in the room, they're empowered, they make the decisions. And then because they have positional power, others will listen and enact them.

[00:35:43] But we know that's not true. We know that it breaks down when you then go to roll it out.  And, either you haven't taken things into consideration that you don't know because as you said, you're not doing the job day to day, like a barista is in this context, and things end up breaking down and take a lot of [00:36:00] time.

[00:36:00] So I think there's this perception that I see that leaders think that this kind of inclusive, get more voices in the room, will take more time. And that it's actually about consensus when you do that, but it's not. It's about understanding what's really there to be seen and heard, as you said.

And even [00:36:16] sometimes it's hard to hear it and to see it and it'd be nicer to believe it doesn't exist. But I, I, it's almost like this idea like you go slow to go fast, so that by taking that time to bring that kind of diversity of business or organizational perspective to the table allows you to make the better decision. [00:36:34] So once you enact it, it probably, I would hope and think, it goes smoother. And I think the real question is, do you believe that it's driving positive results?

LEE:  Yeah. Well, I think you're exactly right about it helping make the better decision. It helps make the right decision. We've had a lot of discussion about this because part of the mission statement is: we say we want the ethical business council to [00:37:00] transform the way we run the business by democratizing the process.

[00:37:04] But by saying that, it's not saying that we're putting decisions up for a vote or anything like that. We've had a lot of discussion about that, and where Joe is owned by a private equity, we don't have the authority to do that anyways, you know, to give up our authority.

It's about bringing in the voice of the people who work in our community, and having that impact the decisions that we make, hearing these discussions, engaging in them, having the debates affects the way that we make decisions.

[00:37:36] I think it's also important that at Joe, we really, we want to make the right decision. We want to make the decision that is best for our people. We want to build the structure that serves and supports our people, because we have a healthier business that way. So we went into it wanting that. So as an, as a leadership group, we're open to those difficult discussions, and we want them to [00:38:00] affect how we make decisions.

EMILY: [00:38:02] Well, you and I, we know so inherently, and objectively I would say, that leading in a more humanistic way drives success and results. I think that there's a lot of cynicism or just not evidence of it, because we've had leaders who have not led in that way. So what is an example that you can think of from your work that you think helps to illustrate the evidence that this works?

LEE: [00:38:28] Well, coming out of the pandemic and even a little bit going into it, we had a really hard time keeping people. We had a tremendous turnover and that impacted our KPIs, our margins, had a significant impact on the business turnover.  We couldn't keep people.  But also the ability for our employees to recognize and connect with what we were trying to do as a business was lacking.

[00:38:54] So by opening it up in this way and creating a more democratic business model, first of all, our, [00:39:00] our retention has improved significantly. Our management team and our HQ, we haven't had to hire somebody for, I can't even remember. It's more than a year, maybe longer, which coming out of the pandemic, probably anybody in retail or food service will know, how meaningful that is.

[00:39:20] It's amazing. We used to have to hire managers constantly, and employees. So we've shifted that dynamic, and that's allowed us to execute our strategies more effectively because, we have teams that we have strong relationships with.  And by exposing what we're doing and bringing them into the process [00:39:46], they feel a sense of ownership over it and they're a part of it and they believe in it. And so they take on the responsibility of executing, and they hold themselves accountable.

You know, we've seen the business improve measurably and [00:40:00] significantly. It's a combination of things, but important part of it is how we've shifted that leadership strategy.

EMILY: [00:40:09] The last thing I want to ask is this idea of how do you scale you, as in the leader, as the business grows? And this, you know, focus on building the wholesale, business at Joe Coffee, you're continuing to kind of test your leadership model.  Because the bigger you get and the broader you go, both in terms of the people who work under the Joe Coffee umbrella, or work in partnership as suppliers, partners, collaborators, and the like, you know, the more at risk it is of how people are going to experience [00:40:45] you, your brand, and what leadership at Joe Coffee means.

And I know one of the things that you said earlier on was to really get to know the leaders, and by getting to know them, you can really kind of help identify and [00:41:00] support bringing their best to work. Tell me a little bit about how you have been grappling with that, and what's working, because I think this idea of how you scale culture is something that a lot of organizations I talk to, um, are grappling with.

LEE: [00:41:15] Yeah. Well, at Joe, it's one of our primary goals to grow our wholesale business. In certain ways, not necessarily in the traditional sense where we're going out and selling coffee to cafes, although we still do that.  But this as an example of somebody that we hired where we got it right, and I think that's an important part.

[00:41:35] Our last wholesale director left, and we paused and decided not to hire immediately so that we could really take a deep look at that part of the business, and see what was going on, understand the clients and relationships that we had, and figure out what kind of work we needed to do to get it for scaling it in a significant way.

[00:41:56] And we spent about a year doing that and that included that, [00:42:00] you know, mostly building the structure of how we get clients, what happens, you know, onboarding, how we express our values, the sales materials, the decks, all of that. Like from that, we were able to define what kind of person we wanted in the role.

[00:42:14] And we ended up hiring Samantha Lutzer, who's our director of sales now. And she's a little bit different from the typical Joe person in that at Joe, all of our leaders are really gentle and we have a lot of soft skills. We're good at math too, but you know, we really have a lot of soft skills. We take our time, we talk through everything, and Sam is just really driven.

[00:42:38] She's an attorney initially, and she just has this, this drive and this energy that is, it's like in the next gear from the rest of us, and in a good way. I don't, you know, Sam and I talk about this. So I think the important thing was through the interview process, we took our time. We were really careful and we made it clear to each other and to her [00:42:58] what we were looking for, what [00:43:00] we were going for. We want to scale this thing.

She's really motivated. She wants to get it from, you know, where it is to 10 times where it is in five years, which was a little bit more aggressive than we told her, but that's great. Go with it. She also understands that we're a values driven company.

[00:43:15] And as she does that, our values need to be in the front. So she has this really great skillset that comes from — she was an attorney.  But then she also owned her own coffee company. She's a very structured person, and she's able to help us build structure for that program in a way that's informed by real experience in the coffee industry, and is open to the values that we want to put forth in the world, even though sometimes it's honestly a little bit awkward sometimes to talk about [00:43:42] ethical values or social values with some of the companies that you approach for potential partnerships.  Because it's not common to talk about those things or for whatever reason. And she just has the perfect combination of qualities to do that work [00:44:00] in the way that we need it.

So I think hiring starts with hiring, figuring out how to integrate values and intangible qualities with structure.

EMILY: [00:44:12] So good. And it's, it's such a testament in terms of her approach. There are leaders and organizations like yours where you're kind of at that leading edge of bringing others along this, you know, kind of values-based leadership journey.  And it's awesome to see it in practice and to see it working.

LEE:  [00:44:31] Thank you so much. It's been so great talking to you. This is part of reflection and contemplation is talking to people about it.  And it's not common to have really deep conversations with people about values-based leadership or the intangibles that are important to us, and that we want to bring structure to.

[00:44:50] And I really appreciate the conversations that we've had and the opportunity to talk to you about it.

EMILY: Well, I feel the same way. As is my passion is [00:45:00] to let people learn from people like you, and from Joe Coffee that you can drive an incredibly successful business that is also connected to values and meaning and humanity and having [00:45:17] a really positive impact on others. 

And that it fits together this, you know, all of us have, you know, our work to do as leaders and as organizations, but it's great to have case examples of what's working. So thank you for the work that you're doing and for your leadership and for this conversation.

LEE:  [00:45:34] And thank you to Marjorie for being a great mentor as well.

EMILY: She's special and I'm so grateful that she connected us.

So takeaways. This is what I'm leaving with in terms of what struck me from our discussion.

The way to scale leadership has to do with your organization's values. And not just knowing them and putting them on paper. [00:45:56] But how do they become a part of your decision-making criteria? How do [00:46:00] they guide the decisions that you make so that everything you do is in alignment with them truly?

Second, how do you bring people into more rooms figuratively? So that when you make decisions, they're really informed by the people who really know your business, [00:46:16] and know what it takes to get things done.

And then third, how do we ensure that we're hiring the right people? Because when we get it wrong, it's really hard. It's important to keep refining and getting even better at identifying the characteristics, the needs that you have.  What has made some people successful and others not, so that you can really codify that insight and use it as the base for selection across a variety of locations and roles.

[00:46:45] Thanks for joining today's episode of Let's Talk People. For more info and insights, visit and find me, Emily Frieze-Kemeny on LinkedIn and Instagram. If you're enjoying the show, please follow, share on social and leave [00:47:00] a rating or review in your podcast app. It helps other listeners to discover us.

[00:47:05] Well, that's a wrap, friends. Until next time, when we come together to talk people.

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