Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Sean Kenyon Knows That Mentoring Is a Crucial Element of Bar Ownership

For many longtime bartenders, their current big-picture goals center on something much deeper than crafting another hit-making cocktail: building up the next generation.

Sean Kenyon of Denver’s Williams & Graham knows this often means taking on the role of teacher and, more importantly, mentor when the opportunity comes along.

Kenyon’s experiences in mentoring versus training, bar leadership and the give-and-take nature of these relationships are key pieces of advice for both aspiring mentors and mentees.

1. Don’t self-label as a mentor.

“I was sitting with Jim Meehan almost five years ago in France at a lunch, and I had received an email from a guy I would consider a mentor. He said to me, ‘Well, who are you bringing up right now? Who’s behind you? Are you building a team or just working on your own?’ His question really was: ‘Who are you mentoring?’

I read the email and talked to Jim about it, and Jim said, ‘You can’t be a mentor until somebody calls you one.’ And I agree with that, and it’s stuck with me. You don’t just call yourself a mentor. Mentor is a big word. You just can’t grab somebody and be like, ‘I’m going to be your mentor.’”

2. Learn from everyone, not just mentors.

“If you despise working for someone, they’re not going to be a mentor to you. They may teach you some things, though, good and bad. You can learn from anybody; you can learn what not to do as much as what to do. I learned as much from my terrible managers as my great ones. But mentoring is a connection.”

3. Understand teaching versus training.

“A mentor is someone who teaches life lessons. A mentor doesn’t just train you to do specific things. There’s a difference between training and teaching; there’s a lot of sharing involved in it. I’m not just working from a textbook, I’m working with people, and everyone takes to different types of education.”

4. Training programs have their place, though.

“It starts with training programs. I think it’s important when people have structure and clear objectives: They know what they’re shooting for and what they’re aiming to attain. They have to have faith in you. Somebody has to be a true believer, and in a way, they have to buy in. For us, it’s sort of cult-like—the cult of hospitality. Everyone is obsessed with the same kind of ethos about it, the ‘we serve people not drinks’ mentality.”

5. Mentoring is deeply personal.

“We have a structured training program at Williams & Graham, but I wouldn’t call it a mentoring program. To me, training and mentoring are totally separate things. You can train skill sets, but mentoring is sharing life experiences to bring someone to the greater end. I think that takes a one-on-one connection. You don’t get mentored by someone you don’t believe in or by someone you don’t really know.”