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Just pour me some coffee

Years ago when hired to work at a community based organization, I went around and visited several Executive Directors of other organizations.  One of those meetings will forever stick in my mind. 

I was only 24 years old and inexperienced.  As the saying goes, I did not know what I did not know, so advice and input were very welcome.  I was looking for a mentor, a guide. One of the directors set a time to meet with me through their assistant.  On the day of the meeting I arrived and was asked to take a seat, Mr. Smith was busy. After about 20 minutes, the assistant came out and told me, “Mr. Smith is tied up and won’t be able to meet. Can we reschedule?”

We set a date for the next week.  The same thing happened again and a date was set for the following week.  On that day, the assistant assured me that Mr. Smith would be seeing me. He handed me a pad and pen and said, “Mr. Smith is very smart. You will want to write down everything he says,” and escorted me in Mr. Smith’s office.  It was a long and slightly uncomfortable walk from the door to the desk.  When I got to the desk, Mr. Smith looked up, smiled and said, “Hello.”  Behind Mr. Smith, holding a carafe of coffee was an assistant and the assistant’s sole job seemed to be to fill empty cups of coffee.


I don’t remember much of what Mr. Smith said—sadly the advice to write everything down went unheeded.  Much of it was about what he had done and how he did it. There was no offer for a continuing relationship.

What I do remember is how I felt.  I felt small and then angry. Definitely didn’t feel like a young leader looking for a mentor.  And I do remember that I made up mind, right then and there, never to be that kind of leader.

What could he have done differently?

  • Well, first of all he could have kept the first appointment.  Nothing says you are not valued like cancelling a meeting AT THE TIME OF THE MEETING twice.  When you are in a leadership role, yes, your days get filled quickly and things come up, but everyone’s time is valuable.  Cancelling at the last minute tells people their time is not valued. Plus knowing how to schedule and managing your time well is a great skill to model (and/or teach your staff).
  • Train his staff.  Either Mr. Smith handled his own calendar, and not well, or it was something he should have delegated and trained his staff to do.   I didn’t need to hear how great Mr. Smith was. I did need my time to be respected and to feel comfortable.
  • Simple action. Mr. Smith could have gotten up from behind his desk and welcomed me. Instead, by sitting at his desk and continuing to work until I arrived, said, “I am busy and fitting you in.”  A simple gesture like a recognizing me as I entered could have gone a long way.
  • Mr. Smith could have asked me about my new position and what I intended to do. He could have asked me if I had a vision—not even sure I knew what a vision was back then. I knew what I wanted to do, but had no real plan. There is room for leaders to share their experience; however listening first is a good way to start. When we listen to others, they feel important. The message shouldn’t be, “I am important and I am giving you some of my important time.”  It should be, “You are important. Share what you are thinking and planning. How can I help?”
  • Mr. Smith might have considered how it felt to be an assistant whose sole responsibility was to serve coffee. He could have introduced that assistant and IF the assistant was going to be there, invite them to the table. Make them a participant with a meaningful role.  That is how staff is developed. That is how you create future leaders. He could have modeled how to treat people.


Good leaders place the focus on developing people. They make people feel important—not a false importance.  An importance based on listening to them, developing their talents, providing direction and giving them responsibilities that not only have value, but will help them grow. In short, by respecting them.

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