Editor’s Note: This is the second of two articles that tells the story of what recruitment can and should look like. You can read the first part here, which features the story from the candidate’s perspective. Two points of view. One extraordinary story filled with heart — and that gets to the heart of recruiting.
The first time I remember having a conversation with Detra, she wasn’t wearing her usual green Starbucks apron. She was behind the counter at Paper Source, a stationery store three blocks away.
“Hi, Detra,” I said, mispronouncing her name with a short “e” as I read it from her nametag.
“Hello there,” she responded, with her typical warmth.
“Did you leave Starbucks?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I’ve taken a few different jobs in the neighborhood. This is just another one of them.”
Based on the sheer number of hours I’d seen Detra on her feet in the coffeeshop, I was surprised that she had time for multiple roles. I was also impressed by her dedication and work ethic. We had a friendly chat while she rang up my notebooks and pens, and she was generous enough not to correct my mispronunciation.
Over the next few weeks, I’d see Detra nearly every other day, often when I was picking up the venti red-eye soy latte that had become my daily habit, sometimes with my oldest child in tow, sometimes on my own. After overhearing another customer greet her warmly one day, now I was getting her name right. To my delight, she was remembering mine, too. And I wasn’t even wearing a nametag!
“Hi, Eric,” she’d sing out in her Southern twang, before I’d even reached the counter. “Venti soy latte with an extra shot?”
“Indeed,” I’d say. “How are you doing?”
“Terrific,” she’d say with a smile, asking about my family.
Everyone in our household knew Detra. When my parents visited from outside of Philadelphia, my dad was bowled over by her warmth and her memory for detail about each of us. It felt so incredibly special that Detra noticed and remembered me, particularly with such kindness, despite the brevity of our interactions each day.
As changes in my job required me to travel more, I created balance by working from home one or two days a week. Instead of merely picking up a coffee, I’d sometimes perch at the counter in the back, sipping a latte and clacking away on my laptop. In between my emails and her customers, Detra let me in on little details about her life: that she was from Arkansas, that she was a parent but didn’t see her kids much, that she was a singer — even sharing a link to a YouTube video of one of her performances. Her singing voice was as warm and effervescent as her personality. I loved getting to know her and that we were becoming friends.
It wasn’t long after that, though, that my fantasy of the specialness of our growing acquaintanceship was shattered.
As I sat at the counter one afternoon, working uncharacteristically without headphones, I slowly realized that Detra hadn’t merely remembered me and my family. She knew the name of every single person who entered the store, details about every single family. She remembered every order and greeted everyone with fondness. One after another, each customer lit up as they engaged with their friend behind the bar.
I was awed. I was slightly embarrassed at having assumed a degree of intimacy between us that did not exist. And I was massively curious about this amazing woman with an incredible memory and the ability to make each individual feel seen, heard, and cared for in a matter of moments.
“Detra,” I asked, “how on earth do you remember every single person’s name and so much about them?”
“Well,” she said, “it’s my job. It’s always been my job.”
I didn’t exactly know what she meant, but on my next visit, I asked.
“I was the pastor’s wife in Arkansas,” she explained. “It was my role to know the names of everyone in the church, the ages of their children, the details of their lives. I got to know them, and they knew that they could come to me, to talk to me.”
She described the components of her various roles as informal pastoral counselor, spiritual advisor, musician extraordinaire, educator, writer, entertainer, and all-around community leader. None of these were official roles, she explained to me; they were all tied to her husband and his formal role as the leader of the church.
Which made it that much harder when she had to leave him.
Detra didn’t just leave an abusive marriage, she said. She left her friends, her family, her community, her role, her religion, her life’s work, and many aspects of her identity.
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I didn’t really know what to say. I just listened and thanked her for her openness and for sharing so much with me.
Some time later, when my work brought me before senior executives at Starbucks, I told them breathlessly and extensively about my affection for venti red-eye soy lattes and for my extraordinary local barista. They smiled and nodded, but my excitement didn’t seem to register. Perhaps they heard stories about amazing people all the time.
When I returned to Brooklyn, I told Detra that I’d shared my awe of her and appreciation for her with C-suite leaders at Starbucks. She was grateful, no doubt, but her reaction was as measured as the executives in Seattle.
“I’m actually getting ready to leave this job,” she said.
“What?” I asked. “Why?”
Not enough hours, she explained. Too long a commute from the homeless shelter where she was living. Not enough money to pay bills anymore. Not enough stability or consistency.
I was floored. I couldn’t believe that any organization wouldn’t do whatever they could to retain an employee as talented and focused on learning as Detra. I wished I’d had someone like Detra in our own organization.
In retrospect, I’m not proud of how long it took me to make the obvious connection here, but I’m glad that I made it eventually. I asked Detra if she’d ever considered working in an office, what she was interested in, what her goals were. I asked her to email me a resume, which she did. I made no promises or offers, but was all too happy to get to present such an extraordinary — if less-experienced — candidate to our team for consideration for an administrative role with one of our client teams.
As Detra went through our firm’s notoriously difficult and long hiring process, each person who met her became as enamored as I was of her warmth, her openness, her curiosity, her desire to learn, and her focus. She went through each step with grace, overcoming every obstacle and arriving successfully at the end of the process several months later.
But she didn’t get the job.
Another outstanding candidate had far more experience of the administrative requirements of the role, having worked with Microsoft Office throughout college and beyond. The irony was lost on none of us: How could a strong candidate get experience and skills without having had the opportunity, occasion, or context to build that experience and learn those skills?
The team shared their genuinely positive feedback with Detra and assured her that they would keep her in mind for future opportunities. It’s a common refrain in employment rejections, but it was true — and indeed, we all did keep Detra in mind.
When an opportunity to join our human resources team came up several months later, our HR manager suggested Detra. Each person who heard the idea was more and more enthusiastic about the possibility, as Detra’s warmth and curiosity were perfect for recruiting, her thoughtfulness and attention to the details of people’s lives were an exact fit for employee support, and her desire to grow and develop was a great model for organizational learning. And when we reached out to Detra, we saw evidence of her extraordinary drive in action once again: She had taken classes to learn the basics of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and had been practicing.
The second time was the charm.
Now, more than a year into this new chapter of our journey together, Detra and I still get to see each other most days. But now I am no longer her customer; we are colleagues, and our firm is all the better for it. I remain extraordinarily grateful for her partnership, friendship, extraordinary focus and drive, ample skill and capability in building community, ambition, curiosity, and, indeed, interpersonal warmth. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to truly thank her for what she brings to me and to our firm every single day.