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First, a quick note: What happened on Wednesday, January 6 at the Capitol Building was an act of white supremacy and power. The riots instigated by our current president follow a pattern of abuse of power that directly means to perpetuate racism. If you can, give money to local organizations doing community work or directly to Black people.
Tell people what they’re good at — because we don’t do it enough.
At my very first coffee job, I had a manager who told me what I was good at. After observing me consolidating open milk jugs and gloriously breaking down boxes for the sake of efficiency, she asked me if I’d be interested in an assistant manager position.
“It’s mostly ordering and putting the schedule together. I think this is stuff you’d like. This is the stuff you’re good at.”
I love riddles and puzzles. When I was in elementary school, my teacher would give us what she called a “mindbender,” or a puzzle with a concrete set of rules from which you’d have to deduce the answers. “There are five students sitting in a row. Christina cannot be in the first or last seat. If Keith sits in the fourth seat, Amy must sit in a seat before him…” At a store with 10 employees and complicated time requests, making the schedule scratched a long-forgotten itch. Ordering exactly the right quantity of milk to fit our fridges felt as good, I can only imagine, as cracking the New York Times’ Sunday crossword.
Years later, I was a trainer for a coffee company. Once a week, we led a tasting that was open to the public, and my training partner and I had to figure out our class calendar. I remember telling her, “I like leading these classes—I’m good at corralling large groups of people.” And then I asked her what she was good at. She said she didn’t know. No one had ever told her.
This week, I talked to Crystal Graham and Toni Dale of On The Go Jo, a coffee company based in Chicago, Illinois. Along with their third partner, Quiana DeBerry, the three have built a robust business that uplifts women across the coffee supply stream.
It became clear from talking with them that one of the reasons they’ve been successful is because, as friends and business partners, Crystal and Toni know both how to identify the other’s strengths and to share praise openly and often. At one point I asked them to give one another a compliment, and they both said that’s easy—they give each other compliments all the time:
Toni: I would say what I love about Crystal is that she is always saying thank you and pointing out things that you did right. I have to feed off her. She does the marketing, she does the branding. She has the final say when it comes to—we know our roles and we know our lanes—so in that sense, I can say you’ve done an excellent job with XYZ, and it’s just a part of our weekly—like it’s just a part of who we are with regards to those positive affirmations.
We kind of know each other’s love language a little bit. Mine is more action. Hers is more words of affirmation and things like that. So we give and take because that’s how we feel good with regards to what we’re doing for the business. Because sometimes we can feel beat up just with all the things that we have going on. And when you say, “You’re a good partner. Oh my gosh, you’ve knocked this out of the park.” That’s helping me, you’re giving me life right now. And I think vice versa.
Crystal: I would say with Toni, I know she’s gonna execute. I know I can count on her to execute. Even if she doesn’t know how to do it, she’s gonna figure it out and she’s going to try to figure it out and she’s not gonna stop until she figures it out.
And I think I’m really big on that, just in life, let’s just figure it out. My school’s motto is, “I’ll find a way or make one.” And I live by that. I will make a way, I do not care if someone says, “I don’t know how to do it,” or, “I can’t do this.” That just motivates me to do more.
It might sound obvious, knowing what you’re good at, or recognizing your partners’ unique skills—but that’s not always the case. I’ll always remember my boss pointing out to me how much I excelled at solving puzzles. That moment helped me draw connections to my childhood love of those “mindbenders.” And it caused me to readjust my self-conception, and even reconfigure my career.
I fundamentally believe that the job of any leader is to pay attention to what their team excels at—and then to tell them so. When you’re in an equal partnership—like Toni and Crystal are—this looks like a feedback loop, a continuous cycle of affirming one another’s strengths:
Toni: It’s a work-in-progress. I think we’re still learning, because we are evolving as women and friends and business owners, that I think it is ongoing. I really can’t say we have to figure it out, because that would not be the truth, but we are continuously working towards a goal and we’re a team. So we know that everyone has the best interest [of the business].
Crystal is the most organized person that I feel like I know. So she definitely keeps on task, like organized Google Docs … she’s like [the person who keeps us] organized. So I think that has helped us structure for sure.
Crystal: Yeah. I mean, Toni and I met when we were in college, so we are totally different people than when we were in college. So I think it’s learning who each other are as adults now. Now, we’re mothers, we’re wives, we’re totally different people. So I think as we’re growing, we’re learning each other more as friends and as business owners. But I think now, even though it’s still a learning process and we’re still learning each other and ourselves as well, I think we pretty much know each other’s strengths, and we’re able to play off of that.
Like Toni, I know she’s a morning person. If I asked her to do something late at night it’s maybe a little quirky. I’m a night person. I’m a night owl, I can get things done at night. I’m the marketer, the brand person, and Toni’s gonna sell it.
We don’t spend a lot of time getting to know ourselves and others on such an intimate level. Traits that are prized, like kindness and loyalty (which I have a lot of feelings about), are blanket characteristics—they are broadly considered positive, but are also inherently vague, and don’t really speak to the individuality of people. What I think workplaces could benefit from is developing a keen eye towards recognizing employees’ talents—and then actively working to foster those strengths.
In my conversation with Toni and Crystal, I mentioned the “36 Questions to Fall in Love,” a list that Mandy Len Catron explored in a viral New York Times Modern Love piece from 2017. (Her book, How To Fall in Love with Anyone, is equally brilliant. I gave it to one of my coffee friends years ago.) The questions are both inviting and challenging, and force the person answering to think critically about themselves—they might know the answers deep down, but have probably never had to articulate them before. I don’t necessarily think these questions are for everyone (I do know leaders and managers who use a false sense of “closeness” as a proxy for “a good work environment.” Likewise, you should be able to maintain any damn boundary you please at work) but I do think Catron’s article opens up the question of what it means to foster true self-knowledge, and how to communicate who you are and where your strengths and passions lie for others.
This happens best when we ask questions. The beauty of partnerships, of collaborative work spaces, of interviews (Hi, hello! This is why I love interviewing!)—even just having friends—is learning more about yourself, and seeing yourself reflected in others. Equally as gratifying, in my opinion, is observing others and telling them what they’re good at. It can be hard to see yourself and your accomplishments fully, and I believe the best partnerships share responsibility in mutually reflecting moments of achievement and highlighting personal strengths.
In our society, we don’t give that self-growth a lot of space. What does it mean, and what could change, if we all decided to carve out space for it?
In the very first iteration of Boss Barista, I had a co-host named Jasper. She’s an incredibly passionate and principled person, and I learned more about myself as we attempted to figure out how to put a podcast together—more than I have in any other professional or romantic partnership, or friendship. And I think part of that came from constantly trying to assess our strengths and weaknesses.
When two people come together to tackle the same issue, both strengths and conflicts come into focus. Just because Jasper and I both wanted to make a podcast and aligned on its intended mission doesn’t mean we agreed on how to put that idea into practice. The first months of Boss Barista involved near-constant reassessment—and some of it was admittedly uncomfortable because I had never had myself so consistently reflected back at me. I quickly learned both what I excelled at, and where I needed to step back and let Jasper take the wheel. I still consider my time with Jasper as the single greatest chapter of growth in my life. (Jasper is now realizing her dreams by working in local organizing and politics in San Francisco.)
It might feel silly, but if you read this, tell a friend or a coworker or an employee something they’re good at. Build up the folks around you—tell them not just how great they are, but what makes them great. I promise they need to hear it.
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