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8 Leadership Lessons I Learned from Working in a Coffee Shop

While I was in grad school, I worked in a coffee shop. I often enjoyed an expired pastry and a hot cup of coffee as my meal. Go ahead…judge me.

Working outside of the confines of seminary kept me grounded, though.The ivory towers from which I peered onto the ground below came crashing down in the middle of a real-life conversation with a broken co-worker. Hard-line black-and-white issues revealed themselves in deep shades of gray when shared in 5-minute breaks between customers on a busy Friday morning rush. The lessons I learned making lattes, serving customers, and building relationships with coworkers marked me then, and continues to do so today.

8 Leadership Lessons I Learned from Working in a Coffee Shop

1. Hard work never hurt anyone.

Going to class was stimulating for my mind. But being on my feet, doing physical work was good for my soul. Laugh all you want, but standing on your feet for 10 hours is exhausting, considering that includes hauling new products, gallons of milk, cleaning up spills, toting massive trash bags, leading coffee seminars, etc. Doing physical labor left me feeling like I’d actually accomplished something for the day. Listening to a lecture rarely did.

2. People want to be led…not “told” what to do.

I was a manager, and quickly learned this truth. It’s astonishing how many people like to micromanage…but how few people enjoy being micromanaged. Leading my coworkers to understand the “why” before the “what” propelled me relationally further than demanding obedience ever did. I started out demanding obedience, because those types of expectations were placed on me. When I translated those to other team members, I realized that demanding and micromanaging weren’t a viable long-term solution.

3. People want to feel like they’re on a team.

Whether that’s through inside jokes, shared experiences, or similar goals…nobody wants to be alone. Nobody. The quicker I incorporated “team members,” and not just followers, the quicker my leadership “worked.” The same is true whether you’re serving lattes or leading people into a growing relationship with Jesus.

4. People and textbooks are not the same thing.

Textbooks make sweeping black-and-white statements that translate well in the classroom. Working in a coffee shop, though, I realized that regurgitating those slickly-worded, catchy phrases did very little to build relationships. And without relationships, truth matters very little.

5. Consistency matters.

I learned that giving people a consistently high-quality product was of high concern, building trust across a brand. Consistently producing a high-quality product builds relational capital as well. People want to know what they’re about to step in to. Offering consistency sets clear expectations up front.

6. Customer service matters

It doesn’t matter how slick your Sunday morning worship services are. Nor does it matter how well-worded your mission and vision statements are crafted. If you neglect customer service, making people feel warm, welcomed, and invited…then you’ll forever have a wide-open back door. The moment you neglect “customer service” is the moment you realize that those you long to hear the Truth are the ones least likely to hear, or receive, it.

7. Everyone wants to feel like an insider

Whether it’s through new information, key relationships, or strategically partnering with others, make sure to keep people in the loop. Let them know what’s coming, that they can pitch ideas, that their voice matters, and that you care to keep them informed. If you want to recruit and maintain leaders on your team, you’ve got to do this.

8. Even the best ideas have a shelf life.

Don’t think that the way you’ve always done something is the way it should be done now. A good idea 50 years ago is likely not still a good idea. Be willing to reinvent, change directions, and kill programs for the sake of reaching more and more people.