How I went from training employees to shepherding people.

My wife and I are the owners of the Dutch Bros. coffee locations in Spokane, Washington. In the early stages of running Dutch Bros., my management approach was pretty typical: train staff to do their jobs better. Over the years I’ve learned that although training people to do their jobs is important, it is not the most important part of leading.

In the early months of our coffee business, I had an experience that made me question my leadership style. I was working in our first Dutch Bros. location, pulling shots at the espresso machine alongside an 18-year-old barista named Nicole, who was steaming milk for drinks. We were slammed that morning. At one point, I reached behind me to grab milk from the fridge, and accidentally bumped into Nicole, but didn’t apologize. She stopped and asked me a question I’ll never forget.

“Why do you care more about the customers than you do about us?”

I was saddened and a little angry. I was her boss! Should I fire her for being disrespectful? But in my gut, I knew she was right. Something was awry with the way I was leading our little company of seven employees.

That experience led to some soul-searching. Now, eight years after Nicole asked me that question, I operate my business very differently.

Going Vertical

Leadership researcher, Nicholas Petrie, writes about two types of development: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal development focuses on developing a particular skill set to meet the demands of a job. This training seeks to improve ability and behavior. In the past, most organizations taught horizontal development almost exclusively. In my business, horizontal development involves training people to make coffee faster and better. Horizontal development is a crucial part of any business and we use it to keep our standards high, but it is now only one part of our culture. We also employ what Petrie calls “Vertical Development.” Vertical Development is a deeper approach. It takes into account employees’ aspirations, goals, and well-being. It sees them a complete people.

Business leaders are waking up to the need for this more holistic approach. And not necessarily because they suddenly started caring more about their people. It’s because the worlds of technology and economics are changing at a rapid pace. For many businesses, people are now their primary capital. Uber, the largest vehicle business on the planet, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the largest social media platform, is merely a service provider. AirB&B, the largest renter of homes, owns no real estate. Just as technology and economics have evolved, our approach to leadership, culture, and organizational development must also evolve. As part of that evolution, leaders are waking up to the fact that employees must be viewed as people under our care, rather than cogs in a corporate machine that churn out products.

So not only does a shift to vertical development honor employees as human beings with ideas and dreams and unique things to contribute; it also helps your organization thrive!

Since our company has embraced this approach we’ve experienced results we weren’t even bold enough to put on our goal sheets. We now have seven locations with over 130 employees. Last year we grew by almost 40 percent. I now meet with the managers and assistant mangers each month for two to three hours during which time we navigate through books on leadership and personal development. We begin each meeting with time for one of the managers to discuss a struggle they are experiencing, and then to receive help and advice from other managers. Each year we go through a goal setting process for each person in the Dutch Bros. leadership curriculum that has nothing to do with the business, but everything to do with their personal aspirations.

Most important, our staff knows we care about them. It is not unusual to receive a meaningful thank you note or text from a member of our staff. Over the years we have seen some outstanding employees leave to follow their dreams, boldly stepping into other careers. One former manager followed her dream by opening up her own coffee shop. My wife and I, and some of our staff, were there on her grand opening week to celebrate this achievement with her. Sure, we’ve lost incredible employees. But the real tragedy would be if they’d never taken a step forward, stymied their dreams, and lived what Henry David Thoreau called “quiet lives of desperation.”

Boss or Shepherd?

I believe we all desire to be known, loved, and challenged. Investing in the lives of our people is really about being a shepherd instead of a boss. There is a world of difference between a boss and a shepherd. A boss is someone who cares primarily about organizational goals. A boss hovers with a critical eye to ensure the necessary work is completed to reach those goals. A shepherd operates from a different perspective. A shepherd may be equally concerned about organizational goals. However, instead of leading by concentrating on tasks, a shepherd leads with personal development. Shepherds see people, not the ends to a means; rather, they are the ends that produce good means. A shepherd continually seeks the good of people, asking, “How do I create an organization where people can flourish?”

Matthew 22:35-40 recounts a story of Jesus being challenged by the Teachers of the Law. To “test” Jesus one of them asks, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus’ reply is simple: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  

Those are great commands for all Christians—and powerful words for business leaders. Loving our neighbor means putting our staff’s potential above our wants. Loving our neighbor means seeing our people as worthwhile ends in themselves rather than as tools to accomplish our goals. It means moving our organizations from horizontal development to vertical development and leading as shepherds rather than merely managing as bosses.

Now, can I get you a cup of coffee?


  • Kevin Parker

    Rep. Kevin Parker is serving his fourth term representing the 6 th Legislative District, which includes part of Spokane, Cheney, Medical Lake and Airway Heights. Kevin is an entrepreneur who manages 80 employees at his six coffee shops and teaches in the Whitworth University and Gonzaga University MBA programs. He lives in Spokane with his wife, Kerry, and their three children.

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