When I first started working as a barista, it was just a way to pay the bills while I was making my way through my sophomore year at The Ohio State University (Yes, the). Well… that, and easy access to coffee during a time when I was pulling way too many all-nighters trying to study. 

I never could have expected that the part-time gig would turn out to be so relevant to my career. Today, not only do I look back on that time with fondness, but I also realize how much my time as a barista has helped me succeed in my career as a project manager. Here are a few things I learned while making lattes and how they apply to my roles day-to-day.

Active listening to concerns

Anyone who’s ever worked in customer service knows how challenging it can be… and that’s putting it lightly. You’ll probably encounter your fair share of happy faces… you have the coffee after all. But for people who take their morning caffeine very seriously (like me), baristas encounter plenty of tough customers. The drink order may be too sugary. Or too slow. Or too hot… I’ve heard them all. As a barista, you listen to their concern and diffuse the situation. 

But when you’re managing a major project for a client, things aren’t as easy as remaking a drink or offering a $5 refund.  While many projects will go as smooth as butter, other clients push the envelope. Sometimes teams hit snags in communication. Project managers, too, need to actively listen to concerns, ensuring that everyone feels heard. Being mindful of what went wrong helps diffuse a tense situation so you can make it right and move forward. 

Setting up for the shift change

At the coffee shop, we had a detailed checklist of things that needed to be done before you clocked out and the next shift arrived in the morning — clean out the blenders, wipe up any spills, restock the beans and milk, etc. Cleaning up before closing up wasn’t for you. It was for your coworkers, to set them up for an easy, efficient next shift. The more thoroughly you completed the checklist, the better service your coworkers could provide, which in turn led to better business. 

As a project manager at an agency, you are responsible for setting up your design, development and copy teams for success. Before the project actually starts — aka, before the “shift change” — project managers must gather details from the clients, set the project scope, and efficiently manage expectations both internally and externally. Only after you’ve completed this “checklist” can you get to work building a schedule that meets the client’s request and allows your team enough time to work with wiggle room. 

Changing up the recipe

There’s a finely honed recipe for every drink on the menu, and a couple months in, baristas know them all by heart. But the drink isn’t great just because of that recipe...it’s great because customers know that they can get their drink exactly the way they want it. Their name is on the cup and while a mocha latte is great, isn’t a triple venti, non-fat, extra whip cream, mocha latte even better? To be honest, when someone ordered a small black coffee, I was just a tiny bit disappointed because it was fun to deliver on the craziest — and sometimes questionable — concoctions.

Just like baristas have recipes, project managers have a set process too. But what keeps the job exciting is that every project is unique. Every project has customizations that may be minimal or extensive. And if you embrace the differences that come along with starting each new project, it’s much easier to adapt as things change. Keeping the foundation of your process is important, but being flexible in how you deliver your product will help you to consistently exceed client expectations.

These are just a few of the things I learned while making lattes that make me a latte better at my job (sorry) as both a teammate and client advocate. At the very least, I hope this encourages you to order something truly bizarre the next time you’re at your local coffee shop. 

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