How One Day at Starbucks Rocked My World

napolean dynamite danceLast week found me plugging away in one of my satellite offices. Starbucks.

I admit it. It’s a favorite place of mine. After all, who doesn’t like a little Starbucks fix now and then?

I was working on a piece on leadership, thinking through the best leaders I know.

The customers streamed in steadily, happily chatting and drinking with caffeinated-infused delight. I tried to tune them out and focus on the work in front of me. But it soon became impossible, thanks to the women standing proudly behind the counter in her crisp green, apron.

Her name was Gieselle.

It all began when a homeless man walked in. He carried a painting in his hand.

My back was to the door so I didn’t see him at first, but I heard him. So did everyone else. In a loud, high-pitched voice he asked for the manager.

“I’m Gieselle, the manager,” she said pleasantly, “how can I help you?”

He was an artist, and wanted to display his pieces outside the store and sell them. Gieselle smiled and nodded, then explained slowly, nicely…and also firmly, that she couldn’t make that decision. She told him how to contact the corporate office.

She treated him with great respect, but also knew that the waiting customers around him might be uncomfortable. It took less than a minute before she’d gotten through his questions and sent him, satisfied, on his way.

That was a good move, I thought briefly, before turning back to my laptop.

Another man walked in. Or, more accurately, returned…his Starbucks drink in his hand. I looked up and noticed the particularly cranky look on his face.

Uh-oh…I thought. Gieselle might be in for it now.

“This is wrong,” he said, thrusting the cup at her. He went on to explain that his white nonfat mocha with no whip had turned out all minty…and with whipped cream to boot!

“Well,” Gieselle said with a smile, already reaching for the magic mocha ingredients, “I’m so sorry about that! We’ll just have to make you another one!”

She didn’t ask any questions to figure out if the error was on his end.It didn’t matter who was right. Or that that he had a tone. Instead, what mattered was fixing it…not just the drink, but any tension he might have been feeling from the experience.

And she fixed it quickly. Which meant the rest of us barely noticed what went down.

Go Gieselle! I thought…nicely played!

When in the next minute an awkward teenager came in and asked for the manager, I didn’t even pretend to go back to work. I couldn’t wait to see what came next.

His gangly limbs and high tone made it clear his body was dealing with the awkward bone stretching, skin oiling, muscle-thickening issues of adolescence.

You know what I’m talking about…

napolean dynamite dance


Turns out our young friend was looking for a job.

Gieselle told him everything he needed to know, and even told the waiting customer next to him how charming this gentleman might be behind the counter. The teen blushed and smiled as he left, application in hand.

Through it all Gieselle didn’t stop making drinks…creating and delivering lattes and smoothies with style.

And that’s when it finally hit me.

I was in the midst of a leader. A great one.

Gieselle had rocked my world.

Far too often we allow ourselves to get lazy when we think of great leaders. We think of the obvious – our best bosses or company CEOs or heads of state.

But great leaders are all around us. Some of them in crisp, green aprons.

In just ten minutes I watched Gieselle prove herself to be a consistent, excellent leader.

How? A brief counting of the ways….

The balancing act: respect for one…and all

The loud painter had the potential to disrupt things a bit. Yet Gieselle found balance…addressing his needs pleasantly and respectfully, but also firmly and quickly. Her graceful tone meant he trusted her, and when she showed him out the door in record time he felt helped. And everyone else breathed easy.

Taking one for the team

Great leaders know that apologies go far.

Even when it might not be their fault, even if it’s an innocent misunderstanding, being a leader means fixing the problems of those you serve so that they feel satisfied – not just by the end result, but by the experience itself. That’s what keeps them coming back.

Great leaders also don’t take cranky people personally. They know it’s not about them. They also know that, in the end, it’s not only their actions – but their reactions – that matter. From the way Gieselle handled the mint-hater, she clearly had that one down.

Focus Focus Focus

With yet another interruption – the teenaged job-seeker – Gieselle displayed another gift that great leaders possess.


She handled the entire conversation with grace, while also being focused and organized enough to – at the same time – get drinks made and handed off to her waiting, seemingly insatiable customers. It was like watching her conduct her own little Starbucks orchestra.

What Gieselle learned

Gieselle herself learned a lesson that day. Because I told her what I’d witnessed, and informed her that she was going to be the star of my next blog.

The lesson?

With everything you do, with everything you say, people are watching.

Gieselle didn’t know I was watching her, which makes her even better. She was being a good leader because that’s who she is. In fact, I’m actually guessing this little lesson won’t change her behavior one bit.

But perhaps it’s a good lesson for the rest of us.

This week…

Watch for leaders are all around you. Perhaps in the most unexpected of places. Remember the lessons that made Gieselle one of them.

And in the end, remember the most important lesson of all.

Whatever you do, whatever you say, someone is always paying attention.

Gieselle herself learned that one that day. She even gave me a photo to mark the occasion: (yes, it’s really her!)

Now, go do good…and do it well.


28 responses to “How One Day at Starbucks Rocked My World”

  1. Tony Everett Avatar
    Tony Everett

    Thanks Deirdre, this was a good read for me because I’m always looking for good leadership traits to pass on to the leaders in the leagues I run. You’re right, it is so easy to see leaders (or not) in the CEOs around us, but we forget to look at all the people around us to see top quality leadership qualities. I will be on the look out today. Cheers

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar

      Thanks so much for your comment, Tony. It was a humbling realization on my end for sure. I really needed to give her credit well before the third incident, but it took me a while to get the message!

  2. cblower Avatar

    Two things: 1) I am going to forward this to all of my front line staff. I think it has a few simple but very powerful messages. And 2) Which Starbucks? I am going to steal her…:)

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar

      Thanks for spreading the word around, Craig. And yes, steal her! (except…who will then create my decaf Americanos just so??!)

  3. Anita Rodriguez-Lambert Avatar

    This is great. I used to work in fast food as a manager and I know how tough it is to handle the daily challenges this poses. It is great that you picked up on her leadership skills and shared this example with the rest of us. Too often we focus on the leadership skills associated with CEOs of fortune 500 companies. This story is something that we can all relate to and learn from. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar

      Thanks for your comment, Anita! I’m with you. It’s funny, I often say that my six years waiting tables (badly, I might add) taught me more about leadership and management than most of my other jobs. I just needed to recognize the same in others…

  4. Lenise Avatar

    I LOVE this! Definitely sharing. I always say I feel like my years bartending taught me the most about fundraising, from balancing multiple tasks at once, handling a variety of personalities and, in the end, getting the job done. (Not to mention, upselling them toward the ‘higher end’ items..) Great post!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar

      Thanks so much! And I don’t doubt bartending made you a great multi-tasker…not to mention an excellent conversation-maker!

  5. Wendy Foster Avatar

    Thanks Deirdre! Makes me miss your leadership here!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar

      Great to see you here, Wendy…thanks for the read. Miss you guys back!!

  6. thepatties Avatar

    Great observation, Deirdre. She probably didn’t recognize her behavior as a strength, but she will now!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar

      Something tells me lots of people will help her recognize it now that she’s a (semi?) famous blog star 🙂 Thanks for posting!

  7. Sarah Avatar

    Your teaser emails are absolutely doing their job. Your open rate must be through the roof! 😀 I love your insights and this was a great one. Thanks and keep em coming!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar

      Why thank you! I’m glad my little teasers do their job!

  8. […] How One Day at Starbucks Rocked My World [Momentum] […]

  9. Patricia Costa Avatar
    Patricia Costa

    Thank you Deirdre. A startling fact we don’t learn in books. I’ve learned that you can teach someone how to do a job but the difference in how well they do is in their attitude. Gieselle is an example of a good attitude and no pun intended – it pays off! Thanks Gieselle!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar

      It’s paid off indeed…I think Gieselle has more fans than any other Starbucks manager in town! Thanks for your comment!

  10. Mark Cafferty Avatar
    Mark Cafferty


    I hope all is well. Fantastic job (as always) and a picture perfect portrayal of Gieselle. As you know, I am probably in this Starbucks more than anyone. Gieselle’s leadership, sense of service and wonderful connection with her staff, colleagues and customers is on display everyday. For anyone who has not stopped by this particular Starbucks when students are arriving for school in the morning or when the large local mega-church is having services on the weekend then you have not seen Gieselle and her team at their best. With lines out the door they never miss a beat, never lose their cool and make every customer feel special. If Starbucks tells us it’s more about the experience they create than the coffee they serve, than Gieselle and her team serve as a model of this philosophy. Great job Diedre in recognizing great leadership is all around us if we just stop and look.

    Mark Cafferty

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar

      Wow – I hadn’t even thought of what it must be like over there on church day! What a challenge, one that Gieselle and her team clearly know how to take on! Thanks for the great comment…

  11. Ron Avatar


    Really nice post, thanks. It occurred to me that the flip side of this topic is that we, at times, probably give too much credit to someone’s leadership skills just because they manage a Fortune 500 company, or are in some head of state role. Just a thought.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar

      Excellent point! I agree that titles can play far too big of a role in our perceptions of leadership skills in both directions…thanks for the great comment!

  12. Budd Rubin Avatar
    Budd Rubin

    Thanks for sharing Geiselle with us.
    She truly practices the “Golden Rule”!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar

      My pleasure – and the true kudos go to Gieselle herself – What a star! Thanks so much for your comment!

      1. Charity Wright Avatar

        As a former Starbucks manager (nearly 10 years with the company), I can say with authority that the leadership she displayed is actually more common than you’d think because these skills are taught. It’s been over 6 years since my time with Sbux, but what you saw wasn’t an accident. I am not saying this to take away from the awesome leadership display you saw, but rather to highlight something from an ‘insiders perspective’…these skills are taught – by example, measured by metrics, and honed by continued feedback. Which I believe only goes to show that to have this sort of leadership thrive in your organization, it has to come from the top – both the training and the know-how. I never finished college and my education and intro to the business world was through my decade working at a company that valued that sort of leadership and taught you how to do it. I’ve worked with countless Gieselle’s in my time at Sbux, but it doesn’t make them any less awesome – especially when you aren’t used to seeing that sort of amazing multi-tasking. I actually miss it sometimes…It was very fulfilling in a lot of ways!

        Also, I saw this post b/c it resulted in Howard Schultz calling Gieselle and inviting her to their leadership mtg and there was a blurb in our local paper this week….glad she’s getting some recognition. When I was at Sbux, I worked in Seattle so I’ve had the opportunity to interact with Howard on a number of of occasions – but for Sbux employees farther away, it’s a huge deal! Glad she got that opportunity!

  13. […] I was on line at a coffee shop (for those of you tracking my recent blogs you’ll notice a pattern here.).  The coffee pots each had a large sign on them. The sign […]

  14. […] I was online at a coffee shop (for those of you tracking my recent blogs you’ll notice a pattern here.).  The coffee pots each had a large sign on them. The sign […]

  15. Edwin Avatar

    Just wanted to let you know that your post reached the CEO and he did something about it.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Thanks Edwin – such an exciting update!