Be observant and patient — Anytime we are mentoring anyone, we need to keep in mind that everyone learns at a different speed and progress. Even when we have access to the same information, how we understand it could be completely different. A role that a leader is required to do is have grace during training. Always be patient about the immediate outcome of the training. With patience, we have to step back and observe how each team member grows on their own with the information we provided.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Claire Sumadiwirya, the owner of Bellden Cafe.
Claire blends her passion for coffee and community through high-quality food and drink offerings, authentic community service, and charity efforts that give back to those in need. She utilizes her MBA in Accounting and Marketing, as well as a decade of professional experience in global entrepreneurship, to support her business and community-based efforts. Her love for others and coffee and the success of her cafe have drawn media attention from outlets such as The Seattle Times, Reader’s Digest, Intentionalist, local 425 and Bellevue Lifestyle magazines, and King 5 News.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Asa first-generation immigrant who moved to the US when I was 12, I suddenly found myself growing up in a completely different social environment from the one I was used to. However, I was warmly welcomed and deeply cared for by the community I entered. Because of the kindness I received as a kid, I knew when I grew up I wanted to be someone who would make an impact on others. After earning my graduate degree in business, I was sent on a short work assignment in Asia. While I was there, my newborn baby got terribly sick. With no support system nearby, I was left taking care of him by myself, alone and exhausted. However, the hospital community showed me care and love that confirmed my idea of building something amazingly kind when I returned home. Something that would be both a business and a lifestyle.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
First, our mission of loving people through wholesome products and sincere hospitality. Most of our ingredients at the cafe are all house developed and freshly made daily. Our team goes through very thorough training on hospitality during each stage of the growth. The goal is to make each customer feel loved and cared for, like the way I was treated both when I was young and when I was overseas taking care of my sick baby. Second, our commitment to giving back to our community through volunteering, charity donations, and marketing partnerships with local charities. We believe strongly that only a purpose-driven business will strive in any economic condition. Giving back is not an option, it is the way we live at Bellden. And lastly, our unique team leadership model of growth and mentorship. Each team member is hired as a team associate and then trained through a clear growth path, including our management team. We preferred to hire individuals who have no experience in areas we operate because we believe that everyone will bring something meaningful to the team even when other businesses might not value them.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
This year is our third year in operating and it was supposed to be our best one yet. We had plans of expanding in size and services, but it was paused due to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. To be honest, in the first week when the pandemic hit our state, I was prepared to lose everything. My business and investment. However, it didn’t happen. Week after week, our sales stabled after one month into the pandemic to a point that we stayed opened every single day to this day. Each customer that ordered from us brought us so much surprise and joy because we literally felt like we won the lottery with each order. The most interesting story happened three months into the pandemic: one of our beloved regulars, Howard, showed up at the cafe with his wife Judy (they are both in their late 80s). They ordered their usual latte and tea, but this time it was to-go because we were not open for dine-in yet. And then the most heartwarming thing happened, not only was that day the first time they left their house since the pandemic hit our nation; it was also their 59th wedding anniversary! When they were trying to decide how to celebrate this big milestone in love, they chose to celebrate with us at their favorite cafe. On top of that, they gifted us with a $500 check to support our business and mission through this hard time.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Before I opened up the cafe, I worked in consulting with mostly corporate clients. The common practice was to have weekly meetings, monthly strategy meetings, and quarterly performance reviews. Everything was very systematic and organized, but extremely lacking in a personal connection. After the cafe was opened, I hired the first group of six people with the same plan of weekly meetings, monthly strategy meetings, and quarterly performance reviews. At first, it was fresh to the team because it was not something widely practiced in the cafe industry. Over time, it became very boring and counterproductive because the operation itself was simple, so the discussion points at each meeting were very similar. I remember, there were a few times I had team members actually fell asleep as I was going over the weekly objectives with my monotone business admin voice. The biggest takeaway from this was that as a leader, we need to be adaptable to the specific industry we are leading. Also, each person we work with is so unique and talented in their own way, so we have to pay attention individually to nurture them and maximize growth. Now, we do a tailored training system for each new hire while using the same material. After that, we practice meetings more on a one-on-one basis.
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Employees are like the cement and steel that are used to build a super steady foundation for any high-rise building. How they work together to build the foundation should be specially formulated according to the company growth needs and mission goals. Inviting a richly diverse talent pool for the company will work wonders for innovation in products and services because we need voices different from our own to create opportunities to improve. The key to building a healthy team is to build trust and foster growth through consistent communication, constructive feedback, and vivid future planning.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership to me is a privilege to create a relationship with my team through solid trust, transparent communication, and growth mentorship. Trust is the foundation of any relationship, it can be built based on small blocks of daily events to bigger situations that required full reliance from the employees to the leaders. Solid trust means not only that your team trusts you during good times, but they also absolutely trust your judgment during a crisis. A good leader should not be self-serving, he or she needs to put other’s growth path ahead of their own because when a leader has a strong team, everyone wins. Transparent communication means a leader has to provide up to date information that is fair and accurate to all team members who are affected by it. Giving everyone on the team permission to ask questions is the key to having open discussions in search of progress. Lastly, growth mentorship is a program the management needs to design specially for each individual employee while training with the same material. This means while the whole team has access to the same training materials, the progress of growth will be adapted according to how well each team member interprets. The leader’s role is to see the potentials in the team and mentor each with strategies that will maximize development in both individual growth and team growth.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
It is important for the leader to stay calm during stressful situations, but we are all just humans like everyone else. What I do to release and relieve stress is to be fully prepared mentally, especially when I know I will have to have a hard conversation with someone. Before any decision is made, I usually observe the situation from different perspectives. And then, I will list out the pros and cons of both sides and also ask myself how this action affects the rest of the team. During our three years of operation in the cafe industry, luckily I have only had to fire a few people. One individual who I had to let go had a great personal relationship with me and my family but had a very negative relationship with the rest of the team. My manager at the time gave him multiple warnings, and the working relationship would improve for a short period of time and then falls back to the old way. When it became apparent that he was not going to be a team player — no matter how much we tried — I decided I would have to let him go. Before the meeting, I sought feedback from the leads on the team, then I sat down and contemplated between his good and not so good characteristics and how they will affect the rest of the team. Once the decision was made, I told myself to be firm with it no matter what. However, because we were close personally, I gave myself permission to be sad with him, and cry with him (which both happened). How a leader thrives from stressful situations is to be prepared, stay unbiased, and think for the team as a whole while putting personal relationships aside.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?
As I mentioned before, I see leadership is a privilege. When this opportunity to make a positive impact on others came to me, I also knew it would be a great test on my own humility, authenticity, resilience, and integrity. Managing a team is the most rewarding part of my job because it projects success in so many ways. For example, a well-trained team will take care of each customer with kindness and professionalism in any situation. When a team is managed well through continuous training and consistent growth, you will see well-delivered products and services, hence a loyal and happy customer base. Furthermore, feedback is the bridge between training and growth. When leaders provide feedback skillfully, it will strengthen the trust between management and the team. It will also create a roadmap for entry-level team members to see future advancement through constant communication with management.
This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?
- It prevents exhaustion and denial
Most of the time when we are hiring talented individuals to be added to our team, we are looking for a personality of great hospitality and transparent communication. Even though sometimes we may think similarly to someone who was educated or raised in similar environments, we will never react the same as everyone else simply because we are all unique. Therefore, being honest and direct with our feedback is very important. We can never accurately guess what other people think. The more effective way to communicate would be as honest and direct as possible, so others on the team don’t feel exhausted from trying to guess what the leaders are thinking of them. Or even worse, they are in denial of how poor they are performing because they are getting mixed messages.
- It nurtures trust between the team
It is important to both consistently give and receive humbly honest and direct feedback. That’s how trust is built between within a team. When constructive feedback is given strategically, it will be received well by the other side. However, it is also important to take note of how well the other person is understanding it. Is she or he humbly listening and acknowledging? Or is she or he becoming defensive and undermining the message? Like tango, it really does take two people to perform well as a team. Showing someone you trust them is encouraging him or her to give you the most honest feedback while wholeheartedly welcoming it with a plan to improve. In today’s world, trust is a sacred asset we must have between each other in order to grow together and help each other learn from mistakes along the way.
- It identifies potential future leaders
No leader will last forever. This sounds a little bit morbid, but realistically a great leader knows when to move on, step back or retire. As a result, it is imperative to always be on the lookout for the successor because most likely it will take months or even years to find someone who shares the same mission and will mentor the team to maintain the way the organization is growing. The end goal is always finding someone better than you. When you are giving honest and direct feedback, you will be able to tell right off the bat who is in the growth stage. A potential future leader should be someone who is always actively seeking concrete feedback, especially the ones asking for improvement. She or he will most likely be great listeners, curious learners and positive motivators.
One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Be observant and patient — Anytime we are mentoring anyone, we need to keep in mind that everyone learns at a different speed and progress. Even when we have access to the same information, how we understand it could be completely different. A role that a leader is required to do is have grace during training. Always be patient about the immediate outcome of the training. With patience, we have to step back and observe how each team member grows on their own with the information we provided. For example, after we trained our team on problem-solving with hospitality, the trainers provided information on how to handle different situations. However, when the actual interactions happen with customers or our community partners, we encourage the team members to act on our behalf. The role of leaders should be to step back and observe how the team acts, and provide feedback along the way.
- Be clear and prompt — When providing feedback, it is very important to set boundaries on what is okay and what isn’t. Before any training starts, we always go over the handbook and also the practices on training and feedback with each team member. There will be very clear guidelines on what is expected and what is provided with work and future growth. We ask the team members to clearly define what style of feedback they work well with, and how they would like to receive feedback when it is not urgent. At the same time, the leadership team will layout the situations where we will provide feedback right away and let the team know that it is not personal, but completely for the benefit of the organization. With the COVID pandemic, we added team COVID wellness guidelines that focused on the responsiveness and honesty of each other to protect the team and the community. Each day, all team members will check off the items, and if someone has any questions and concerns they are required to report to the management team immediately.
- Be fair and unbiased — Humans are built on relationships, we strive on human connections and community relationships. As a result, we will tend to like some people and dislike others simply because of the unique preferences in personalities that we think work well with us. The main responsibility for a leader is to always stay neutral despite what kind personal relationships he or she has with the team members. The guidelines we use to evaluate performance are exactly the same for everyone, including myself, so the outcome should be identical as well. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. That’s why some businesses have a hard time separating personal and professional expenses. One of the very few people I had to let go was a very close friend of mine, and during the exit interview, we both cried. We cried not because we wouldn’t be working together anymore, but also it was something actually very achievable to do if both sides took it seriously. It is super rare for friends, relatives and/or spouses to work together well because there are so many personal interactions outside of work. Staying fair and unbiased are very crucial to practice as a great leader, but it takes extra work to set the boundaries on how to behave at work versus in private.
- Be a role model — Have you heard the phrase, leading by example? I am pretty sure you have. It has been the golden standard in leadership, and will probably never go away. Just because I am the CEO of my company, this also means I am the janitor, mediator, communicator, and cheerleader when my service is needed. I take my role with so much honor because being a role model is the best way to influence others by action, and we all know actions imprint deeper in the mindset of others than just words. At our organization, the way we give honest and direct feedback is always seeking the exact same thing from the team. At every one-on-one meeting, I always ask the team to tell me one thing they would like me to improve on. No negotiation on that at all. When a meeting is scheduled, I would remind them what I am looking for in feedback, and ask them to think seriously about it. The most honest and negative feedback they provide, the more praise they will receive from me. This is how I set myself as a role model especially for feedback, it creates the trust that it is completely okay to tell me what they think and each opinion truly matters because they matter.
- Be an active listener — When giving honest feedback, the objective for that is to help the team grow along the path they desire whether it is for Bellden or for their long-term goal. A really important part about this is being an active listener. If I, as the leader, am taking notes and acknowledging every comment and feedback my team provides with openness then, when it is my turn, they will do the same. This mutual respect is so important for the team members especially because many times they feel like they are subordinate, so they don’t feel comfortable sharing how they feel. However, each person brings value to the growth of an organization no matter what their job title is. What they discover from their observations for the operation can be so different from what I see, so the innovation from their feedback will be very different from mine as well. An organization will only grow when every element of it is growing at the same time, the pace might be different but as long as we are all growing the overall projectile will be positive.
Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote.
How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
One consistent thing I always do is starting my emails with my team with: “I hope this email finds you well and I am so excited to work with you this week (or any other time we were working together)!” It sets the tone as something very positive, so the reader will be eager to read the rest of the email. I utilize descriptive language and exclamation points and question marks to add some excitement to the email so it is not just a boring direction of the work process. Then, I will move onto the feedback back. The objective is to keep it short and direct: the more flowery and poetic explanation will confuse the reader more and they can misread it completely. For example, if I need to ask the team member to be on-time, I would say: “Thank you for always being such a fun person to work with and consistently providing great customer service, but we would like to see you be more punctual on each shift so we can have more time to grow with you.” Next step, I would provide a measurable action plan like: “I know you can do this! Looking forward to seeing you on time for all future shifts!” Because our business is focused on people, it is very important to communicate with excitement and clear wording so the team knows exactly what we are looking for, and also it sets team dynamic correctly as fun, loving but consistent all at the same time.
In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?
It depends how quickly the consequence will be. We are in the hospitality industry, so each situation that requires feedback varies on the case. If it is food safety or health-related, it is always a case that requires immediate intervention because it involves the safety of the customers. On the contrary, if it is an action that wouldn’t affect the business or team in any way but it is not within the training standard, then I would take a note of it and keep track to see if it was just a one time action or it is a consistent habit. If it is the latter, then I will consult with other people on the team and verify whether they are seeing this as a problem as well. It will be discussed during our periodic performance review later. Furthermore, if it is an action that meets someone in the middle of urgency, I will access it with the management to figure out whether it is a preventable mistake or an accidental action. It is always smart to trust the people on your team because in return they will trust you, therefore never assume that your team is doing something wrong because they don’t care about the business as much as you do. What I do in this type of situation is that I do a quick check-in and ask them how they are doing and establish the gateway to well-received feedback. Most of the time, the team member himself or herself is actually doubting themselves about the situation and is hoping that I would step in and provide guidance.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
A great boss is someone who has found faith from the past, supported by love in the present, and motivated by hope for the future. A great boss is full of humility, authenticity, and resilience, but not afraid to acknowledge failure. She is constantly looking for ways to improve with the help of her team and gives herself permission to be vulnerable. These are the values I frequently remind myself to passionately pursue because life can be very occupied with three kids and taking care of my own wellness. However, at the end of the day, each part of my life together is what makes who I am. I am very proud to say, I am a better leader because I am a mother, an immigrant, a daughter, a believer, and a woman. Each story in life gives me the experience to learn about ways to lead, each person I meet helps me to discover ways to connect with people who are so different from me. A great boss is someone who cherishes and loves her team and her community and is not afraid to admit she is a great boss because of the people who are supporting her dream.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We have to live our lives positively through unconditional love, intentional kindness and open communication. Our humility is in danger, not just now during the pandemic and racial injustice, but it has been deteriorating since civilization. We may not be in control of every aspect of our world, but we are definitely in control of what we do, how we feel, and when we react both toward others and ourselves. Kind acts with warm words are the key to do everything in love. You can do it so beautifully! I believe in you, in us.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of the most important life lesson quotes is: Never ask anyone to improve if you have not improved first. This is something my father taught me at a young age. There are so many things that are out of our control, but how I act is definitely in my control. When a situation arises, we should never blame others, but always reflect on our own actions to see if we can improve so that a better outcome will be achieved next time. As a leader, we need to lead with continuous self-improvement mentality, so the team will be inspired to improve on their own versus micro-management.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.