An inspiring nurse leader shares lessons learned in a Starbucks leadership training program, which prepared her for the role of palliative care lead.

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My leadership training started while I was a Starbucks barista, and now, at my career’s midpoint, I am a nurse leader in palliative care. These two roles, surprisingly, have many similarities, and I have come to realize that good leadership skills are broadly applicable across personal and professional settings. Not everyone has the benefit of extensive leadership training, so I would like to share a bit about my path to palliative care, and things I have learned about leadership along the way.

"I have come to realize that good leadership skills are broadly applicable across personal and professional settings."

Turning Back Time

To offer more of a glimpse into my story, my first bachelor's degree is in sociology, which I put to work as a research assistant at Argonne National Lab. I worked on mapping urban water quality, using a very early Geographic Information System program. However, I realized that sitting in a cubicle on a computer was not my life's calling, so I decided to get a night gig at Starbucks until my vocation revealed itself to me.

Leadership Training and Putting It into Practice

After proving myself as a barista, I was invited to join Starbucks' leadership training program – and I jumped at the opportunity. I spent six months doing modules and classroom learning; I was also paired with a preceptor, who led me through simulated and real-life scenarios that I would have to deal with as a manager. That same preceptor kept an eye on me over the next year, including regular check-ins to ensure that I felt supported in my new role.

"Through my training, it became clear that understanding how each person learns helps to cater their individual training plans."

I soon became a trainer for new hires, and one of my first tasks was managing a class full of adult learners. We would begin each class with a survey that would inform me, the instructor, of people's preferred learning styles. Through my training, it became clear that understanding how each person learns helps to cater their individual training plans. I would then incorporate components that were hands on, artistic, or more analytical and text based, as befit the learner. To this day, I use different forms of communication when leading meetings: readings, activities, videos, and PowerPoint. It really helps to keep the team engaged, thinking creatively and entertained.

I spent the next six years managing several Starbucks stores, opening a new market in upstate New York, and overseeing business partnerships in New England. I learned a number of important practical management lessons in a variety of areas: hiring (ask a lot of questions), firing (keep good notes of questionable behavior), motivating a team (balance positivity, accountability and transparency), and managing a profit and loss statement (get a good mentor).

A couple of other lessons I learned in my training and management at Starbucks seem basic, but the dividends they pay off make them worth mentioning:

1. Listen

No, really. Listen. Do not just wait to talk. If you truly settle in and listen to your team, they will tell you exactly what they need from you. Typically, it is not the stuff that is out of your hands, like more money, a nicer office, a better schedule. No, typically the things colleagues are looking for are respect, feeling understood, and knowing that their work is noticed and appreciated. A leader who does not stop talking and listen to their colleagues can accomplish none of that.

"If you truly settle in and listen to your team, they will tell you exactly what they need from you."

2. Know Your Triggers

We all have those colleagues who make our blood boil. Honestly, that has a lot more to do with us than with them. By now, we should all know that we cannot control other people, but we can control the way we react to other people. So know your triggers. When you feel yourself about to lose it, tell yourself, "Oh, I know this feeling. I'm about to lose my stuff. That typically doesn't go well and sets back the work I've been doing by weeks or months. I'm just going to excuse myself until I can face this situation with grace and dignity." OK, don't say it aloud, but quietly to yourself.

3. Know "Where the Buck Stops"

Newsflash, it is with you! Take responsibility instead of shifting blame. Take an active role in fixing problems and NEVER, EVER, say, "that's not my job." It IS your job. Everything is your job. If you do not have an answer, find it. If there is a problem, own it, and gracefully figure out what happened so that you can fix it. Your team needs to know that they can trust you, and that you will never throw them under the bus.

"If there is a problem, own it, and gracefully figure out what happened so that you can fix it."


Real-Life Practice

I have experienced three very personal life events that put these concepts to the test. First, my husband and I walked the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail: 2,685 miles from Mexico to Canada. Then, a few years later we had a couple of kids. The third event was my mom's spinal cord injury. Those lessons about listening and triggers came into play every single day while hiking, and later as parents (especially now with teenagers in the house).

My Entrance to Nursing

My decision to enter the medical field came about rather dramatically. In 2006, my mother was paralyzed in a bicycle accident, resulting in the spinal cord injury mentioned above. The process of caring for and supporting her through the long and painful months of surgery and recovery helped me understand that I was being drawn to the medical field.

In a whirlwind 16 months, I completed an accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing, and started my career at a 23-bed hospital in the mountains of Oregon (long story… I’ll save for another blog post). After moving to Michigan (another long story), I worked in a Post Anesthesia Care Unit (PACU), where I learned about the acute suffering of patients and their families during times of crisis. I then was the lead nurse at a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) clinic, serving primarily homeless people and refugees.

Transitioning to Palliative Care

During a casual conversation with a recruiter in our HR department, I mentioned my unusual background as a barista/manager and nurse. To my surprise, she explained that my experience was exactly what the organization needed. She noted that very few medical professionals have management experience, and very few managers have medical experience.

"She noted that very few medical professionals have management experience, and very few managers have medical experience."

Soon after that conversation, I became the manager of three programs: Geriatrics, the Advanced Care Coordination Program (a medical house calls program), and Palliative Care, for Mercy Health Saint Mary's in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Across these programs, I focus on removing barriers so that our providers and support teams can give the best care for our patients, whether they are in the hospital, a skilled nursing facility, or in their home.

Mission and Vision

Not surprisingly, the same lessons that I mentioned earlier apply within health care leadership. The commonalities reveal themselves in every interaction I have as a leader. Cultivating a shared sense of mission and encouraging an inclusive work environment crosses all professional boundaries.

  • Starbucks' mission statement: To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.
  • Trinity Health's mission statement: We serve together in the spirit of the Gospel as a compassionate and transforming healing presence within our communities.

Don't you see the similarities? This is what we are all trying to do, and leaders are uniquely situated to drive this. We are all trying to connect with our patients, and their families, and our colleagues to give them a sense that they are being nurtured and cared for to the best of our abilities. What an honor.


Looking for More on Nurse Leadership?

Beyond the lessons learned above from Bethany, CAPC's Leadership Skills for Nurses toolkit includes and informational resources to provide nurses with building blocks for leading teams, and steering high quality, sustainable programs.

Learn more