Originally published by Tim Redpath
Leading questions is a series of interviews with successful leaders conducted by TEC Canada Chair, Tim Redpath.
Tracey Clark is the founder and CEO of Bridgehead Coffee. Since 2000 she has grown it to become Ottawa’s largest independent coffee company, with 19 coffeehouses, employing over 300 people. Dropping out of university, she developed her leadership skills with the Ritz Restaurant Group, before backpacking through Nicaragua and exploring her interest in social justice and international development as an AKFC fellow in Bangladesh. Along the way she got an MBA from Concordia and worked with both Newbridge and Mountain Equipment Co-op.
Leadership comes naturally to me
Leadership comes naturally to me, but it was not something to which I aspired. It’s only recently that I feel I am consciously a leader. From an early age I was recognized for my leadership in school or on sports teams and at university I was active with a number of campus organizations and given a leadership award.
I have always been somewhat of an ‘outsider’, and there has been adversity in my life. I struggled to define my sexuality in my late teens and early 20s. That contributed to my dropping out of university. I eventually identified as a lesbian, thankfully, and am now happily just a person. I lost my younger brother to a harrowing struggle with drugs when he was 32 and five years later lost my mother to cancer, and I think a broken heart. I believe that many, many leaders, as well as artists, have unique vantage points as outsiders, or from having had to overcome challenges, and that it can be a tremendous source of fuel for drive and ambition.
I have always been drawn to working with groups. The role I always seem to play is helping them get unstuck and move forward, helping to define goals, ways of doing things, establishing criteria for decisions, and ensuring everyone is on board and heard. This is still a big part of my work as a leader, although with a high performing team around me my job now is to ensure there is a strong vision and clear goals, and that there is space for people to thrive.
I had to move out of operations to become the leader
Building up the business from scratch, I have taken an active role building out the various parts of our business over time, from the operations of our coffeehouses, to our bakery-kitchen, to our sourcing and roasting. Today my own work is real estate, store design and delivery.
As we grew I also put a management team in place, but I was a bit slow to really shift my focus to leading this team. A couple of years ago I realized I had to move out of operations to become the leader and I had to focus more on the team. It felt a little bit weird at first, because you have to give up prioritizing your own ‘to do’ list, and value a different way of working. In fact, it’s not even about helping other people manage their to-do lists; it’s about ensuring you have the right team, and that all members are aligned and working well together with a clear objective.
If someone comes to me now and says, “What would you like me to do?” it makes me crazy. I say, “Let’s agree on the overarching objectives. Now show me what you can do.” Almost always the results are better than if I was prescriptive.
Another aspect of my role as leader is watching out for people always working for the good of the whole and being flexible and adaptable. If we ever have people thinking about their own piece of the organization rather than the good of the whole, our boat will start sinking.
I pick up on the energy in the room
I pick up on the energy in the room and attribute much of my success as a leader to this ability – the things that are being said, and the things that are not being said. It’s equivalent to being able to see patterns and opportunities in the external environment. My job is to look after the health of the team. When the team is made up of the right members, and the team is healthy, our organization can soar.
Sometimes when it’s a hard issue, I have to make a call
Provided we have a clear vision, I like to work by consensus as much as I can. I believe discussion by a group, supported by good data, leads to better outcomes. Sometimes when it’s a hard issue, I have to make a call, but if everyone in the room has fully contributed, then I know I am making the best decision.
A slow pace of change can frustrate me
I have always been a high performer and a slow pace of change can frustrate me. My responsibility as leader is to notice when there are systemic changes that need to be made. We have always had a counter-cultural brand. Now we are tasked with creating a high-performance, counter-cultural brand. We have always been known for our quality and sustainability, and now we’re in the midst of adding ‘renowned hospitality’. Sometimes counter-cultural can be interpreted as ‘its ok being mediocre’—I reject that—the challenge for us is to be exceptional, while being humble and whole.
Sometimes I have had to work with the team to say, “It’s OK to have an intelligent loss of business to focus on our profitability, as long as we don’t compromise who we are”.
We are a values-driven organization. The type of people that come to work at Bridgehead self-select around our brand and values. My job is to make sure we are true to our values.
I have had to learn how to play the extrovert role
I’m a pretty introverted person, and although I love people, I have had to learn how to play the extrovert role. One of my challenges is to be visible. It has taken some time for me to realize that spending time in our shops with customers and employees is an important part of my work as the leader. When I take an interest in our customers and employees and their experience I’m living our value of caring, and what I learn will help our brand, along with myself, to stay relevant and true.
While my introversion challenges me on the visibility front, it does give me more time to think clearly and not be overly influenced by trends or media.
Personal loyalty has held me back
A lesson I have learned as a leader is that being too loyal to family systems can be inhibiting and can run the risk of limiting the business. It’s especially true as a business is growing to ensure that the members of the team are right for the level of the business you are at, and the next level up. Sometimes, good performers at early stages cannot scale as the organization grows. Personal loyalty has held me back sometimes from making timely, tough decisions as the CEO.
I am in my natural habitat as the CEO
I think my team would see my leadership traits as being passionate, caring, having integrity, and strength. To me, being strong means holding a strong vision, staying true to our values, and persevering in the face of challenges.
My natural traits are probably better suited in a larger company and, now that we have grown, I am in my natural habitat as the CEO.
My roles are to absorb the external environment, figure out a successful strategy, be the advocate for the customer experience and the employee experience, and have the right team in place to achieve our goals.
I like to create a sense of community connection
It’s really important to me that people connect in genuine ways and feel a sense of belonging. That’s a purpose for me, both in terms of employees and customers. I like to create a sense of community connection for customers and employees and I believe it has a positive social benefit.
It has been challenging to keep a sense of independent spirit or vitality, because when we got past about five coffee shops that connection with me, as the founder, was limited. It’s imperative we focus on creating a strong organizational culture that lives its values, so we can continue to provide the positive social impact of belonging as we grow.
There is great value in solitude. I think people are afraid of it.
One of the books I have just read is Oliver Sacks’ ‘The River of Consciousness’. One of his essays was on the Creative Self and the importance of the gestation period; the value of reading, and the value of mimicry as a way of apprenticing for your own meaningful creative work.
I recharge and get my inspiration from reading and from nature. Time outdoors fuels my creativity, and lets me reflect, let’s me dream.
It’s ironic that my purpose is creating a sense of belonging for people when they meet over coffee in urban settings, but that I also really value solitude and spending time in nature.
There is great value in solitude. I think people are afraid of it – there almost seems to be a war on solitude. We’re in this increasingly consumeristic, materialistic, high-paced, high-internet society and the counterbalance is being out in nature. Or meeting over coffee at Bridgehead.
“It’s going to be a great day, and I’m going to embrace it”
I am a subscriber to the notion that by thinking more positively you can bring a more positive attitude to your workplace. You can get up in the morning and say, “It’s going to be a great day, and I’m going to embrace it,” or you can say, “Ugh!” I choose to embrace the day and I have realized that I am more content that way.