You Can Learn to be a Leader in the Most Unexpected Places

Grow Accountability and Competence in Your Employees by Asking the Right Kind of Questions

Over the sound of the espresso machine, I hear Lydia, the manager at my favorite coffee shop. She’s talking with a barista who is training to be a shift manager. As the barista looked at a piece of equipment. Lydia said,

“What do you do next?”

The barista responded.

Lydia: “And if you do that, what do you expect to happen?”

Another response.

Lydia: “What makes you say that?”

From her tone, Lydia was creating a safe learning environment. She was not trying to catch her trainee doing something wrong, ready to punish her for what she didn’t know.

Make it safe to make mistakes.

Lydia, by getting her employee to think out loud, was learning what the employee was thinking. It’s much easier to reinforce the right stuff and correct the wrong stuff this way. She was helping the employee embed the learning in her brain by allowing her to think and speak her thoughts, without judgment.

By asking questions, and waiting for answers, you learn how quickly they are catching on. You don’t have to waste time telling them things they already know. You catch things they misinterpreted that you may never have considered had you not allowed them to talk.

There’s no need for this to be a demeaning experience. You as the leader can demonstrate to employees that they are accountable, and you are on their side at the same time.

Tell them what you’re doing.

Back to Lydia. The same day I overheard her with the same trainee.

“Now I want you to know that I’m actually not going to do some of the things that need to be done for closing. I’m doing this so you can notice what needs to be done and then prompt me to do them. Act like I’m one of your shift members right now.”

I loved that Lydia was telling her employee what to expect without giving her all the answers. She was putting the employee in a position to think for herself. She was allowing her employee to try out the task she was training for, while there was little at stake. Lydia telegraphed to the employee she was putting her in a position to practice. She put the employee in a totally different mindset. This quashed any question as to why the boss wasn’t completing her closing tasks. She was setting up this employee to rehearse thinking like a shift leader. She did not leave that to chance.

We underestimate practice.

When we are trying something new, and we make a move deliberately and it turns out wrong, we learn from our mistakes in a different way. It’s more effective than hearing what to do or not to do. It’s more effective than reading from a manual. It’s better than being told you are doing it wrong before you get a chance to learn that yourself.

We are so hard on each other and ourselves as adults when learning new tasks. We don’t berate or disdain toddlers when they try to walk, fall down and pick themselves up, over and over.

She’s a coffee shop leader, not a coffee shop manager.

I subsequently interviewed Lydia about how she developed her management style. She said that in past experiences she has observed other managers who had a “telling” style. They were prone to punishing or demeaning employees when those managers were not clear on explaining the task, to begin with. She says she finds it easier to get to know an individual’s strengths and apply them in the best way for the organization. Lydia is of the millennial generation. From my observation, her approach comes naturally to her.

I don’t know where we stand on whether leadership skill is inherent or can be learned or is a little of both. What I do know is that leadership is all around us. If we keep our eyes and ears open, we just may learn something, even from our local coffee shop “leader.”

A version of this post originally ran in my column Navigate the Workplace at CIO Online on November 13, 2015.


Mary Schaefer
Mary Schaefer
Mary is a fierce advocate for developing workplaces where the human beings who happen to be employees, thrive. Her speaking, coaching, training, and writing all focus on making the most of what human beings can contribute to an organization through their distinctive energy and creativity, while at the same time meeting their own specific needs for meaningful work. As the principal of her own business, Mary is a guide to increase empowerment and cultivate productive manager/employee interactions. Drawing from her experience as an HR manager, her work centers on talent development, performance management, and a positive employee experience. She is a co-author of the book, "The Character Based Leader." Mary has presented at the Inspiring Women in STEM Conference and is also a TEDx speaker. Her clients include small businesses, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and Fortune 500 companies. Mary has a master's degree in human resources management and is a certified HR professional. This Midwest farmer's daughter is a big fan of homegrown cantaloupes, gapingvoid art, and LinkedIn.

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