Navigating the uncrossable coffee career gap

Is the coffee career for young professionals a jungle gym? Or just a jungle?  Photo by Soft_Light iStock  Getty Images

Is the coffee career for young professionals a jungle gym? Or just a jungle? Photo by Soft_Light iStock  Getty Images

Hey, Anne! I love what I do, but I know my role as a manager is more of a stretch than a fit for my passion for coffee, drive to teach and inspire others, creativity, and tendency to always want more.... what advice might you have? I feel like if I truly follow my heart, passion, and natural abilities I can't stay a manager long term, but where do I turn? Sometimes my role makes me feel guilty for loving and engaging in coffee so much. I definitely don't spend my paid time on my extracurricular learning and experimenting with coffee, but I have a dream of finding a role in coffee where I can be paid for what I'm pursuing in my free time, but there seems to be a huge, uncrossable gap between my manager role and a coffee engagement or education role.... thoughts??? – Natalie, Seattle WA.

This question is kind of big. And it's definitely hard. And so - my apologies in advance - the answer is pretty long.

Over the course of the last few years, I've heard and read a lot about how the millennial generation will "search for a new way" when building a career path. They will "carve the future" for themselves as they go from job to job (or, increasingly, gig to gig). In coffee lately, I heard this charming little piece of advice: career paths now are more like a jungle gym than a ladder, so sometimes you have to make interesting moves and jumps to get where you want to go.

While I think this process of redefining the American "career" is happening across the board for our country, I think it's especially challenging in the niche or craft high end service sectors. And that's because the sectors themselves are growing, reshaping, and redefining. We also are at a really interesting economic juncture, where legacy systems converge with gigs and startups. 

So what that leaves us with, career-wise, is not a jungle gym. It's just a jungle. Many of us are forging paths with machetes, figuring it out through the muck and the mire. What does my job title actually mean? How much is it worth? When should I ask for a promotion? What steps should I take to get there?

Then, there's the other, possibly scarier question: am I whacking my way through this jungle only to hit a cliff's edge, or an impassible river? Should I quit while I'm ahead?

As a person who is SO good at walking until about 300 feet before a destination and then declaring myself lost (usually I find the sign within 10 seconds and feel like a complete dummy), I know exactly how this feels. I remember being a retail manager back in NYC in 2007, immersing myself completely into whatever coffee knowledge I could get my hands on. In those days, we didn’t have lofty titles in our organizations like, “Coffee Engagement” or “Director of Education”. I was fortunate at Joe to work for some amazing store trainers… But there was no such thing as a training department.

On the flip side, I've also kept myself in what seemed like absolutely the right career path for way too long. I get swept up in the river waters, excited to see where it takes me, only to realize I've gone in completely the wrong direction. I think that all of my last 3 ventures – TampTamp, SCAA, and Starbucks – I held on too long, trying to make it work even when my gut knew it couldn’t. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from this is: listen to your gut!

For the most part, I've turned out ok. But when I'm lost, it's the worst feeling in the world. I know that for many people - especially coffee people - this is a major roadblock as we grow our industry. Because for the individuals involved, suddenly the coffee business feels like a huge waste of time, and many leave the industry. Then as an industry, we have to start from scratch bringing talent into the fold all over again.

So, enough about me, and back to the question at hand: 10 years with one company, and it looks like there's still a long way to go before a light at the end of the tunnel to the job you want, or team you want to be on. What can you do?

Let me start by sharing some thoughts on what you shouldn't do. First of all, never give your time away for free to your employer, unless it mutually benefits you and the employer. Even then, tread lightly. Because if your employer is not valuing the thing you want to do, there's a good chance the values you have will not line up with your company in the long term. It’s a good sign there’s an obstacle in your path down the line.

First of all, never give your time away to your employer unless it’s mutually beneficial. Also, don’t mythologize a “dream job” - learn if it’s really right for you.

Second thing: don't mythologize the "dream job". Many people focus on a certain role or position without learning what the job actually is. Before you decide you want to do any job, talk to the people in the position. Learn what the position entails - in real life, not on a job description. Ask for information, talk to people, learn about the work, before applying for a position. Try to meet the people you'll work with, and your future boss. Do you want to work with these people every day? Is the work you want to do also what they want to do? Or does it sound a little different? Also, how long did it take for people to get to that position, and where did they go on their path through the jungle? If the answers are a variation of a really, really long time, or complete chance and luck, be wary that some politicking and preferential treatment might be going on.

Ah finally, what you should do!

Trust your gut. Your gut know what it's talking about and you need to listen to it.

Bust out the machete and see what’s out there in the jungle.

Take the blinders off and look for ways to be paid for what you value beyond your day to day track. Bust out the machete and see what's out there. Talk to people in roles you don't think you're qualified for yet, or think you maybe will or won't like. Again, it's better to do this before any interview process. Our little coffee world is still incredibly welcoming and open to people truly willing to learn. Don't be afraid to ask to visit a company, or talk to a professional you admire. You may be really surprised to find a new path that's already been carved out for you.

Then, you have to decide. Personally, this is the hardest part of the path for me. There is a fork in the road, or many forks. I will stand at that metaphorical fork for way too long. I don't really believe in "leaps of faith" or "daring in the face of danger". When I keep in mind that not choosing is also a choice, it helps the decision making go faster.

The last and final thing! We are not done once we have made our decision! Just as our employers are evaluating us, we need to evaluate them. Are they really who they said they were? Are they meeting the expectations set? Did we miss the mark on knowing what the expectation would be? And -- keep updated on the other fork in the road. Did a friend or colleague go down the other path? Keep in touch. Because you never know when someone might lead you through this jungle by the hand, and pull you into the meadow where you've always belonged.

I hope that helped, Natalie! Readers, please share your thoughts if you have advice or experiences that might help below.