Learning from a waiter-in-training

At a local diner, servers practice their craft through careful observation, reflection and preparation.

At a diner in Durham recently, two young men in jeans and t-shirts approached our table and told us they would be our servers. The taller introduced himself as Scott and said that he was a trainer; the shorter said his name was Scott, too, and that he was the waiter-in-training. Over the course of our meal, I watched how the two men interacted and was impressed both by the way they worked together and the way the trainer worked with his trainee.

The trainer asked three questions that helped coach the trainee into better performance. They are three questions that institutional leaders should be asking of all those we are called upon to mentor:

What do you see?”

While the more experienced waiter could simply have told his trainee to greet the table just seated or to refresh the coffee at another, it was more beneficial for the trainee to identify these things for himself and respond. The same is true institutionally. Inviting a mentee to describe what he or she sees happening within an institution or across the landscape reinforces the practices of inquiring into reality and naming what is essential for institutional leadership.

What happened?”

When something went wrong with a customer’s order, the trainer could have told the trainee that he had failed to write down the customer’s precise instructions. Yet, by having the trainee answer this question, and thereby analyze the situation and find his error, the lesson will stick in a different way. In mentoring relationships within an organization, helping people analyze their own successes and failures gives the lessons staying power. And this way, no one gets to blame the kitchen.

What do you think we should we do next?”

There was a moment in the diner when nothing was pressing. Every table was eating peacefully. Every mug was full and steaming. No one was ready for a bill. And so, in the lull, the trainer asked the trainee what they should be doing to prepare for the inevitable moment when the situation changed. When mentors ask mentees to think about the moment when the organization’s situation looks very different than it does now, they are inviting them to exercise their capacity for strategic thinking even as they have an opportunity to hear not just what senior leaders are thinking about but how they are thinking.

I doubt that Scott the trainee will spend his vocation as a waiter, but with such thoughtful mentoring the time he does spend there promises to be good for him and good for the diner’s patrons. If we mentor those in our institutions well by asking them these kinds of questions, their time might be the same.