There is a huge difference between Leaders (with a capital “L”!) and managers (with a lowercase “m”).

I’ve worked in a lot of different environments, for a lot of different companies, under a lot of different kinds of supervision, but the best experience that I had working for someone was in college at a corner coffee shop: Cafe Cordova in the Casa Monica Hotel.

During the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I was an eager beaver. I worked at that coffee shop full time in the mornings, did tours with Ghosts & Gravestones at night, and worked part-time at Disney on my two days off. Doing what? Well…here’s a picture of my best friend visiting my office in Orlando:


At 19, I was most nervous about taking the cafe job because food service was a little scary to me. By that time, I’d already been a babysitter for five years, a drama camp counselor, and worked for Old Navy. The prospect of working Entertainment at Disney World didn’t scare me. The ghosts were spooky, but leading groups of 20 around town at night and the public speaking aspect wasn’t frightening. Dealing with hungry people? Yikes.

Angie was the Cafe Supervisor. She’d done a top notch job of retaining the current staff and hiring new employees that fit into the puzzle. Lesson One: Hire the Right People. I don’t think that co-workers always need to be friends, but in this environment, it was necessary. Not only did we function like a well-oiled machine, but we were buddies that would get together after the cafe closed, stop by to say hi if we had a day off. It was never an environment that I didn’t want to come to.

It was a very busy location: the only coffee shop within walking distance of the college, the only coffee shop in the city that served Starbucks at the time, located in the lobby of the ritziest hotel in a tourist town. It wasn’t uncommon for us to have a line out the door. Angie’s response to the mayhem was something that has stuck with me. Lesson Two: No Job is Too Small. Angie would jump into the fray in the best way she saw possible, be it at the panini station, making espresso drinks, or on the register. I was so new to employment at the time that I took it for granted. Having 15 years of work experience now, the only leader that I can recall truly knowing how to do their employee’s job, and being willing to do it, was Angie. That’s it.

(Sidenote: I realize that sometimes a leader’s job is to supervise a teams of people whose skills outweigh theirs. Also, there is real value in hiring people that are smarter than you. In that case, the leaders that stand out are the ones that are humble and willing to learn, assist, and support their employees.)

Lesson Three: Communication and FUN. We had a staff meeting every month. Angie always found someone in the hotel’s restaurant to watch the cafe while we were gone – because she was smart enough to train some of the restaurant staff in case we needed assistance. Again, I took this for granted! It didn’t occur to me that it should be uncommon for a coffee shop to have a monthly meeting to air grievances, to congratulate each other, and to better know co-workers. We were all friends, but these meetings gave us a chance to understand perspective.

And somehow, Angie found the budget for some truly spectacular staff meetings. She thought it was important that we see the town we worked in, since it was such a tourist trap. We’d always have dinner at a local restaurant, then do something fun: climb the town’s lighthouse, go on a ghost tour, sail on a pirate-themed yacht, learn about our town’s environment on an eco boat, learn to make sushi.

It was also during one of these staff meetings that Angie rewired my brain with one simple question. Her big complaint that month was that we were messy. Not call-the-health-inspector dirty, but just a little messy. She was sick of walking in and finding tea bag wrappers on the counter. We all protested, sure of the fact that it must be a phantom; we were all tidy as could be!

“Okay, fine. Show of hands. How many of you made your bed this morning?”

On most mornings, I made my bed. 5 out of 7 days a week, I’d throw my comforter up and arrange the pillows. On that morning, I hadn’t.

“Uh huh, that’s what I thought. Guys, just try making your bed every morning. See how it feels.”

Ten years later, it’s a habit I can’t kick. I’m militant about it. I hear Angie’s voice in my head when I’m dead tired, without coffee, or hungover. In ten years time, I’ve not made my bed, like…twice. (And felt awful about it those two times.)

Angie was so exceptional that the hotel promoted her into their restaurant’s management team. I remember the sense of shock that we all felt when she told us at one of those staff meetings. We weren’t surprised – she was exceptionally talented – but we were devastated that she was leaving us.

I quit the cafe shortly thereafter. I was a Theatre major, so once the semester started up I got busy. But, truth be told, I didn’t feel the same sense of pride in Cafe Cordova that I’d had over the summer.

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