Business Lessons From An Airport Café

Achieving Goals, Leadership Coaching, Mindset & Mindfulness
12/26/22 - Nicole Wood
person writing in a notebook at a cafe

I had a bit of time before a flight the other day so I stopped at a little airport café. Instead of tucked off to one side or another of the terminal, the café sat right in the middle of the hallway directly between gates on either side. One side of the café had a glass display with the pizzas, sandwiches and salads for sale. There was a cash register but no one manning it. The other side was a wrap around bar with one bartender fielding orders from people coming at him from all directions. He was hustling.

I sat down in the only remaining open barstool and pretty quickly got a feel for what was going on. There were cooks to make the food but no one there to take orders but him. So he was simultaneously making drinks and taking care of the bar patrons while also serving the role of the to-go item cashier.

Upon further inspection, it got so much worse.

He only had one stained and crumpled paper drink menu. He was shuffling it around among the people at the bar. He had no food menu. He was rattling it off from memory when anyone asked. He had to keep an eye on the food coming out of the kitchen and make sure it got to the appropriate bar patron or to-go customer. There was a little area where the cash register was where he was trying to corral all the to-go people, but they kept coming at him from all angles trying to place orders. Repeatedly, he’d ask them to come around to the other side. It really was the only way to tame the chaos.

And then there were the customers. Oh the customers. We all know people become the worst versions of themselves when they step foot in an airport. I saw a glimpse of it while sitting at that bar for all of 25 minutes. One woman was so particular, edging toward nasty. I’ve never heard someone ask so many questions to order a margherita pizza.

I felt bad for this guy. He was sweating. He was visibly stressed. He was not set up for success. I way over-tipped him. Was his service the best I’ve ever received? Of course not. But because I could see the full picture of the odds he was up against, it was my small way of saying, “I see you, and I appreciate what you’re doing,”

Then something hit me. Was his situation all that different from what most corporate employees face on a daily basis? Sure there’s a difference in the physicality of it which is certainly demanding. But what about the stress? What about being set up to struggle?

How often are your employees trying to do their jobs with one crumbled menu? Trying to achieve more, better, faster with insufficient tools and resources.

How often are your employees trying to do the job of many? Especially as many organizations continue to face layoffs and thinning teams.

How often are your employees trying desperately to get people to order from the other side? Trying to get people to follow the process that makes their life easier. That gets them the data they need. That keeps the process manageable.

How often are your employees dealing with people who don’t recognize that 48 questions about a pizza is ridiculous and rude? That lack EQ. That can’t read the room.

How often do you stop and say, “I see you?” Maybe it’s time to start over-tipping.

Here are three quick ways to do this today.

  1. Operate with the mindset that you only see 10% of the picture for any given employee.

    This is a difficult one to do, but it can really change your thinking. How many times have you asked a team member to do something and then gotten frustrated with the result or lack of results? Of course we are here to provide accountability and help improve performance, and also your team is undoubtedly doing so much behind the scenes that you don’t see. They may have had 6 meetings to get you that one slide. They may have researched for hours to find that one stat. The system may have crashed 3 times before they were able to get their entries in. Often what gets relayed to you in the length of a tweet, had about a book’s worth of work behind it. Try to remind yourself of this often.
  2. Say out loud what you see and appreciate.

    We are so often focused on constructive feedback that we forget to express gratitude for and reinforce the behaviors we do want to see. Focus on the behavior, not just the result, and be specific. This might look like, “I really appreciate how proactive you have been in reaching out to clients. It was great to see Cathy’s appreciation for your support.” Or something like, “I saw that you are taking 6 calls a day instead of the recommended 5. I appreciate that you are really going above and beyond to make sure we hit our targets.” Or something as simple as, “I know this meeting was important to you and I appreciate how much you prepared for it.” These little moments of recognition are a way to show that you see your team.
  3. Over-tip.

    Give a spot bonus. Give a raise. Give what you can when you can. If financial incentives are out of the question right now, can you offer this person something for their own development like access to a course or some coaching? Can you simply invite them to a room they typically aren’t in and give them additional visibility? Can you give them more time and energy? Especially when times are tough we cut, cut, cut. But those people who are there hustling alongside you are the ones you should be increasing your support for.

I firmly believe that almost everyone shows up to work with good intentions and a genuine interest in doing a great job. Then the challenges arrive: the glitchy systems, the limited resources, the difficult personalities, the lack of data. As leaders it’s our job not necessarily to understand but to appreciate the full picture of what our teams are facing. It’s our job to regularly stop and say, “I see you, and I appreciate you.” And it’s our responsibility to invest every dollar we can in our teams and no less. They deserve it.

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