Sophie Gilmour from Bird on a Wire talks leadership

As the co-owner of one of Auckland's fastest growing restaurant chains, Sophie Gilmour knows that managing people is both the greatest challenge and also the greatest pleasure of running a hospitality business. Since opening shop in 2012, she's learnt that it's crucial your staff feel heard, to not shy away from the hard conversations, and to empower your staff on each stage of the journey.

How many staff do you currently manage?

All up we have around 70 staff. I am involved in the day-to-day management of all of them to a degree because I work with them all, but I closely manage the senior and office staff so let’s roll with eight.

How have you recruited them – through others or advertisements?

We’ve done it all! We have advertised on Seek, TradeMe and our social media channels. We’ve also hired people that have walked in off the street and through word-of-mouth. Our senior and office people are typically staff that started ‘at the bottom’ and have worked their way up so hiring from within is also really effective in our business.

What does good leadership mean to you?

Empowering the people that you work with to commit to being the best  they can be at their job. If they’re engaged and trying hard to keep improving, everybody wins.

When leading a smaller team, what effect does this have on your leadership style?

Working in smaller teams allows for a more ‘coaching’ style of leadership - helping people identify their particular weaknesses and how to manage them when they are exposed in the workplace.

What traits have you developed since you began running your business?

I’ve become a better listener. It’s crucial that staff not only feel ‘heard’ but that you really listen to their perspective – if it’s important to them it should be to you also, particularly when monitoring the ‘culture’ within the business. I’ve also become less reactive. I’ve learned that people can often only see a situation from their perspective so as their senior, you’re best to listen and remain objective, before saying something like ‘great thank you for letting me know, I’ll go and chat to [the other person involved] and come back to you with the plan for how we’re going to move forward.’ Usually by the time you do that, the dust has somewhat settled as well.

What traits are you looking to develop in terms of how you lead your team?

I’d like to become more comfortable with having the difficult conversations that you’re required to have as a business owner with staff. I am at times the same age or even younger than some of our staff, and have struggled in the past to ‘pull rank’ when the situation requires because I’ve become friendly with them or they have more life experience than me. I’d also like to be a bit more structured about the conversations that we have with key staff to review their performance – it’s so easy to postpone these or talk about ‘urgent’ things, but it’s so important to keep communication lines open and ensure everyone is on the same page.

Do you have any specific initiatives for staff development?

We have a cheesy program called the ‘PHD’ (Poultry Handling Degree) which we expect all staff to achieve to a certain standard. Each staff member is issued a ‘passport’ when they start with us that sets out the trajectory of each stage of their role at Bird On A Wire (ranging from ‘egg’ to ‘rooster’) and what is required of them at each stage. We try and empower them to move through the passport and get signed off at each stage as quickly as possible, and reward them with pay rises as they become more highly skilled and therefore valuable to the business.

We also send our managers to Restaurant Association industry related courses and have recently put two of our senior staff through an Emotional Intelligence course which they found to be really helpful.

How do you introduce staff into your business and do you explain your core values to them?

I used to sit down with each and every new employee and give them the whole lowdown on ‘us’, but that become unrealistic as we got bigger. The passport document has somewhat taken over from me and is presented to new employees by their Store Leaders (along with their induction pack). It provides an introduction into ‘Who We Are’ and ‘What We Care About’ and we also have an internal Facebook group that is used as a noticeboard of sorts to reinforce our core values – people, food, neighbourhood ad the environment – and all our owners post regularly on it.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about leadership or your business or your staff?

Managing people is both the greatest challenge and also the greatest pleasure of running a hospitality business in my view. We have been really successful in creating a strong culture of ‘good vibes only’ and try hard to make sure everyone feels safe happy, accountable and contributory at work. We recognize that people have lives outside of Bird On A Wire as well and in exchange for their hard work we offer to assist them if they require our help with anything in their lives outside of work– our owners include a former lawyer, two teachers and merchant banker so our experience is varied and has proven helpful to the staff in all sorts of ways as well.

16 August, 2016 by Sophie Gilmour,

Sophie Gilmour

Sophie Gilmour

Sophie Gilmour is a young businesswoman with a passion for feeding the world better food. After completing a Law and Arts degree at Otago University, Sophie returned to Auckland and worked as a commercial lawyer. This was, until she and some fellow food-loving friends had the opportunity to buy a late-night takeaway store in late 2011 and open their own concept: Bird On A Wire (March 2012). With locations in Takapuna and Ponsonby, Bird On A Wire is anchored by its commitment to ethical sourcing, sustainability and ‘real food’. 

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