How to Develop Top Leadership & Management Teams

Knowing what you are capable of … and more importantly, what you aren’t capable of, are key values in leadership for any brewery owner, founder or manager. The ability to spot weakness in your company’s leadership and then implement the appropriate response by filling that weakness with a strength can be vital.
In Asheville, North Carolina, being the oldest brewery in the region was enough for many years to help sustain growth for Highland Brewing. But as Leah Wong Ashburn started to realize, the management team the brewery leaned on to drive decisions just wasn’t going to be enough.
About four years ago the brewery started to sort out what its identity was in a now crowded field of breweries in the Asheville area. Hiring a consultant helped with some changes, and inadvertently helped create the next step in what the brewery did for leadership.
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“It was where we had a lot of managers, but we needed to train our managers to lead teams and not just be really good at their jobs,” explained Ashburn. “From that, the industry changed and we had three of the biggest breweries move into our backyard and we knew we had to get better at our game.”
A leadership team was developed so that Ashburn — Highland’s president and the daughter of Highland founder Oscar Wong — and her staff could be more sophisticated about making decisions on growth.
“When we did start the Leadership Team, we started with four and now two of those four are still at Highland,” she said. Now the leadership team sits at seven, which is as big as Ashburn would want for that team.
“You have to be nimble and small,” she explained. “And it’s hard to get everyone together for it. It’s already a really big challenge for the seven of us.”
Building a board has helped Left Hand Brewing founder Eric Wallace lead in business practices.
“They may not know all the right decisions, but they can stimulate the discussion to the extent that you’re going to improve the decisions that you make,” he told Brewer Magazine in a 2016 cover story. “And I had outside advisors that weren’t on the board that I sat down with regularly … and these guys have started companies, taken companies public, been hired to turn companies back around. Really, really smart guys.”
Joe Short founded Short’s Brewing in 2004, but as the brewery has grown, putting together a a management team has been “all over the place,” as Short puts it.

“I think our best team is the one we have now,” he said of the brewery that is on pace to top 50,000 barrels in 2017. “There’s not a lot of “layers” and we’re all for the most part working managers. Meaning, we’re working directly with all of our employees. Recently, we’ve trimmed a layer and that’s working well for us.”
There’s four people on the operations team at Short’s. Together they manage the entire company and work directly with department heads such as Hospitality, Production, Merchandise, Sales, Events, Finance, Maintenance, Marketing, Design, Construction, IT and HR, as well as spend time on the floor or wherever help is needed.
“I simply know what I’m personally capable of doing and not capable of doing,” Short explained. “I also have a good handle on ‘what needs done’. My strength is being able to identify what needs to be done and working with people who can help me achieve those objectives.”
Short says he believes that it’s important to have a pulse on the operations as a whole and to have frequent discussions with a leadership team.
“It’s amazing what your observations can bring to systems you’re not involved in day to day,” he said. “Likewise, it gives your team the opportunity to bring obstacles to your attention, you might be better equipped to navigate.”
The Highland Leadership Team discusses different aspects than the Management Team. When the Management Team gets together it’s a bigger group and hard to have full discussions on one topic.
“It moves slower,” Ashburn said of management meetings, which worry about day-to-day operations.
“As a small company, [the Leadership Team] helps us move faster,” she said. “We have done some tough exercises that attempt to build trust in our team — whether it’s relaying personal stories or working through exercises together to be able to give each other compliments and constructive criticism at the same time. And then be able to take that in and absorb it at the same time so we all are getting better at communicating with each other. We have made some good progress that way. It has helped us dive into the core of our biggest issues for Highland to see who we are going to develop and continue.”
The Leadership Team deals more openly with finances.
“We have that big picture with each other so then we can talk about where we are financially, how we are planning for growth and it’s big time strategies, who we want to be how we differentiate ourselves,” Ashburn explained.
One such talk centered around how the brewery had recently invested in the property the brewery is on, but they still sell a majority of the brewery’s beer in a multi-state area.
“So how do we find balance of selling beer on-site where you can make a little more money than you do selling it in Virginia, but we are built for distribution so we have to find ways to remain strong and proudly regional,” she explained.
Personally, for Ashburn, she said her main weakness was in manufacturing.
“I shouldn’t live in the middle of that, I don’t thrive there if I am in the middle of it,” she said.
So to help combat that shortcoming, Ashburn brought in her husband Brock in the start of 2017 to be the Vice President of Operations for Highland.
“He is fully involved in operations and that has really helped me,” Ashburn said of the move. “Finding that weakness and knowing it and finding someone with that strength is something that has really helped.”
The difference, Ashburn pointed out between Highland’s two groups have really invigorated her because she said she is not a solo performer.
“I don’t want to make independent decisions, and nor can I make them super effectively in a room full of lots of people,” she said. “The smaller group is a great way to have big ideas created, get everyone on board and then us being able to support and engaged in what is going on.”
The beauty of the industry is that owners and founders can have so many business models that work well. The same goes for leadership and management teams. Even discussing how a Leadership Team should work, the liquid is still the almighty final word.
“It still has to be good beer. There are just certain characteristics that are brewing flaws and I think we all need to get better at that,” Ashburn said. “There is still tons of room to grow in this industry and there is room for more flavorful products and a much bigger percentage than we currently have.”

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