Cup of Coffee Philosophy

by Stephen T. Messenger

January 1, 2021

What would you get your boss if she asked you for a cup of coffee first thing in the morning?  One of my mentors asked me this very same question ten years ago.  I pictured myself walking to the break room to fill up a Styrofoam cup two-thirds full of whatever coffee another employee left in the pot; maybe throwing in some cream and sugar for taste.  As I was thinking about having some coffee myself, my mentor snapped me back to reality letting me know we were talking about leadership, not coffee, and that I failed his mental exercise.  You need to get the boss what she doesn’t know she wants. 

In my mind, a fairly warm beverage served with some sugar answered the mail.  My mentor envisioned something much different.  He went on to explain to me what the boss was really looking for—even if she didn’t know it at the time.  She was asking for a steaming hot cup of coffee, served in her favorite mug with a small plate underneath and stirring spoon to the side.  She wanted the cream in a carafe served at room temperature with three sugar cubes in a glass bowl accompanied by a small serving spoon.  The accoutrements should not go in the coffee since it’s hard to predict exactly how someone likes their beverage.  I was to serve this mug on a silver platter with a cloth napkin neatly folded on the side.  On a second plate, there should be a bakery treat with a knife, fork, and second napkin.  Next to the treat is a small bowl of diced fruit.  A thermos on the tray contains a refill of coffee, and finally my mentor warned me not to forget a blank thank you note that the boss could fill out and write to whoever helped me with the mid-morning masterpiece.

Often, your boss doesn’t know exactly what she wants.  Leaders provide purpose, direction, and motivation to move the organization forward.  This entails a myriad of tasks to include vision, design, guidance, and counseling.  They are managing hundreds of tasks and seldom have time to either know the specifics or describe the details of what they visualize in their heads.  It is up to you to take their vague task and turn it into success far beyond what they envision.  Or at the very least, provide a menu of options for the boss to continue fleshing out ideas.

There are four types of employees who receive tasks:[i]

1. Deadwood: This person will receive the task and perform to a substandard level that does not meet your expectations.  The coffee will arrive black, lukewarm, and in someone’s else’s used mug.  This is typically about ten percent of your workforce.

2. Solid Citizens. This employee will do exactly what you asked.  You will have a hot cup of coffee with a normal amount of cream and sugar.  They will meet the minimum level of expectations, but never exceed them.  Forty percent of your employees are solid citizens.

3. Learners.  Learners are independent thinkers in your organization and will exceed your expectations.  They will ask probing questions such as, “How do you like your coffee?” and have a cup prepared like that ready for you tomorrow.  They consist of forty percent of your workforce.

4. Stars.  This employee is anticipating your move without asking.  They think about all possible contingencies to complete the task and go above and beyond the requirements.  The boss didn’t have to ask for coffee, the star just brought it.  The boss lets this person run and receives much more than anticipated.  A star’s work has positive follow-on effects for the organization.  Stars are the top ten percent of your team.

Now obviously, no employee is going to orchestrate a feast when asked for a physical cup of coffee.  However, when asked for a metaphorical one, the best employees prepare a banquet.  They have the ability to anticipate their boss’ needs and go above and beyond the call of duty.  They are in the boss’ head, thinking about what she needs to be successful to both her organization and her supervisor.  Stars prepare a buffet with different and creative options the boss can ask questions about and choose from.  Stars have the ability to put themselves in the supervisor’s shoes and solve their problems before they even know there is a problem.  The best employees arrive with more than just a simple beverage and ease the burden of leadership for their supervisor. 

After all, no one ever asks for a cup of coffee AND a napkin anticipating a spill.  They just ask for coffee.  Moreover, no one will ever ask for a blank thank you note after such a simple task, yet a handwritten appreciation from your boss’ boss has the ability to change someone’s future work ethic.  Get the boss what she needs, not what she asks for.

[i] General (Retired) Darren W. McDew (United States Air Force), “Perspectives on Leadership,” Scott Air Force Base, IL, March 18, 2014.

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