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A Performance Director, a Buddhist Proverb, and a Mentor Walk Into a Starbucks…

Vicky (Teacher) & Me (Pupil)

There is a saying believed to be of Buddhist origin, “when the pupil is ready, the master will appear”. Another iteration I have often seen says “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I once believed the underlying message of this proverb was a simple one to grasp: one cannot learn or be taught, if one isn’t open or prepared to learn or be willing to accept lessons given by another. It took me 40-years of my life to realize that I was incorrect with that belief, only to discover the true meaning of this proverb in where else, but a coffee shop.

During the summer months I tend to spend my afternoons working on various projects for the upcoming year: presentations that I will be giving at conferences around the nation, brainstorming various ideas relating my craft, or reading a variety of books, journals, or articles. As someone who doesn’t get much work done in the office, often times I find myself a mile down the road working at a table inside the local Starbucks. Arriving most afternoons around 2:00 or 2:30 and staying until 5:30ish, I start to see familiar faces, regulars of sorts, who make their way to this coffee shop as part of their own daily routine. This is also true of the staff; a group of people, who through nothing more than observation, would help me realize that I didn’t truly understand the lesson of the aforementioned proverb.

What became very apparent over time was that while most of the staff didn’t change from day to day, their performance, productivity, demeanor, and overall approach to work did. I found this quite amazing, as I didn’t know why this employee wide change in performance was happening from one day to the next. I even noticed that some days their work dramatically improved while I was sitting there working. I began to observe a little more closely, and it was after further observation that I was able to determine what the difference was. Vicky was one of the assistant store managers who was present each and every time when the employees were providing what I deemed as a higher level of service. It was literally like clock work. Performance elevated; employees seemingly were enjoying themselves and their co-workers more when she was there compared to when she wasn’t. This change in demeanor was so evident once, that I finally stopped my work to observe what was happening. Everything would noticeably change for the better or worse depending on Vicky’s presence. Even before or after her shift, the difference was quite a discernable one.

So I began to observe Vicky more and even took some notes. After all, I manage people (as she does), and interact with those I manage on a daily basis (also as she does). Whether a team of performance coaches, athletes, coaches, or sports medicine professionals, I knew there was much that could be learned from this late twenty-something Starbucks assistant manager’s management style.

After observing, there were a few distinct characteristics, the one which stood out was the level of proficiency in how she did her job. No matter where she was working-- behind the counter (drive thru, register, making drinks, etc.), she did everything with speed, skill, efficiency, and perfection. She took pride in what she did and how she did it. She certainly embodied the notion of leading by example. Regardless of her status as an assistant manager, there was no task that she was unwilling to do.

She remained consistent and composed. No matter how busy or how slow business was, regardless of the situation (and I observed quite a few) she never seemed flustered, thrown off, or agitated by anything and more importantly with any one.

She was an extremely effective communicator. I believe that there are two sides to being an effective communicator. Not only must one be able to effectively articulate what he or she desires, but he/she also must know who he/she is talking to and the best method in which to communicate to each of those individuals on the team. Their understanding of what is being communicated completes the loop. (Sound familiar? This is a critical component of coaching). This means she (the Starbuck’s Asst. Manager), also must be a good observer and good listener. Both observation and listening will help best determine how to communicate effectively for the betterment of the organization.

I learned a lot about managing people that summer, but one of the most important lessons I learned, is that mentors are everywhere; you just have to be willing to look, and more importantly recognize them. Many of us spend countless hours reading books and articles, attending conferences and speaking to well respected colleagues in the industry. We often approach these learning opportunities with an open mind because we are seeking out these opportunities to learn, and these opportunities tend to take place in environments that lend themselves to learning, allowing the master to appear.

I wonder how many other opportunities I’ve missed over the years because I “the pupil” wasn’t ready. After all, who would think one would find a mentor at Starbucks? It was this time I realized that I didn’t understand the proverb, for I should be ready to learn all of the time and from everyone and anyone.

It’s safe to say that I will always be seeking opportunities to learn from everyone, for this pupil is now ready! Thanks for the lesson Vicky.

More to come...

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