At Sprout Social, Getting Coffee Is a Teambuilder

Alan Boyce, the VP of engineering at Sprout Social, averages three coffees a day. You might think he’s just a run of the mill office caffeine junky, or perhaps that he’s attempting to dodge his work with frequent coffee breaks.

The truth is, Alan doesn’t even drink coffee. He’s one of the hardest workers at our social media management company and one of our premier leaders.

So what’s this all about?

Former Intel CEO Andy Grove regarded by many as one of the top management minds of the tech world described the job of any manager as a cycle of acquiring information, disseminating information and decision-making.

“Much of my day is spent acquiring information,” Grove noted, and the remainder is spent steering those at the company toward the company vision, which he described as “nudging.” This applies all the way up to the CEO.

At Sprout, we have found that successful product managers and engineering managers match Grove’s managerial description. They are particularly skilled at acquiring and disseminating information across individuals and teams throughout the company.

Coffee makes it comfortable

So what does any of this have to do with coffee?

Alan, like other leaders across our engineering organization, has found that coffee dates are one of the quintessential tools managers can use to achieve a high level of effective communication. Look around our office at any time of day and you’ll see managers across our engineering and product organizations coming and going from coffee dates with those they manage, their own managers, their peers, engineers, designers and QAers.

Topics discussed over coffee include current projects, challenges with those projects, future projects, career goals and aspirations, current frustrations or roadblocks, weekend plans, personal relationships and everything in between.

Every organization has a forum where similar topics are covered, often in scheduled one-on-one meetings. While Sprout has one-on-ones as well, we’ve found the coffee date to be a much superior medium for regular communication for the following reasons:

  While some of the coffee dates are regularly scheduled, most happen on-demand. This means information can be exchanged proactively and quickly as problems, conflicts, or any other needs arise. Many problems can be squashed if they are addressed before they balloon.

  They feel informal. They do not feel like meetings, therefore they are much more enjoyable to take part in, especially in an engineering culture typically allergic to traditional management overhead.

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  They happen outside of the office. Because they do not feel formal and happen outside of our everyday work environment, it’s easier to have honest, unabridged conversations about sensitive topics.

  They feel like a break. Even though value is created for the company, for those who spend their days sitting in front of a computer, heading out for coffee and conversation feels like a break. Even when you’re excited about your work, it’s nice to get out of the office.

  Their length is flexible depending on what needs to be discussed. They can be reduced to a quick 10 minute check-in or extended to a couple of hours. Steve Jobs famously held most of his meetings while taking walks. At Sprout, when folks need to continue digging into deep issues together after a coffee date, they can walk around the city of Chicago until everything has been fully discussed.

  Finally, coffee dates help our staff establish closer relationships with each other.

Get to know your people

Richard Winters, a military leader and author, includes “get to know your people” as one of his key leadership tenets. Much of the time we spend on coffee dates is spent hanging out and chatting about matters that might seem insignificant. However, this is time well-spent, as the better we know and respect each other on a personal level, the stronger our team will be.

If you’re an aspiring leader and you find yourself struggling with open and timely communication or getting bogged down in formal meetings, the coffee date might be a great fit for your tool belt. For many of us at Sprout, it can be kicked off with only two characters in Slack: :coffee: ?

A version of this article was originally published on Sprout Social’s engineering blog.


4 Comments on “At Sprout Social, Getting Coffee Is a Teambuilder

  1. Thanks,Jack:
    “Topics discussed over coffee include
    current projects, APPROPRIATE
    challenges with those projects, APPROPRIATE
    future projects, APPROPRIATE
    career goals and aspirations, CAN YOU TRUST THEM?
    current frustrations or roadblocks, CAN YOU TRUST THEM?
    weekend plans, IFFY, BUT PROBABLY OK
    personal relationships NOT APPROPRIATE AT WORK!!!
    and (NOT) everything in between.

    1. I’d suggest that what’s appropriate depends on company culture and where the culture has defined its boundaries (it’s not a top-down process IMO). Some of our team members chat about home stuff on coffee dates once in a while.

  2. Hold on a minute, Alan doesn’t even drink coffee?!? I don’t think I can trust Alan, then. 😉 All jokes aside, I completely agree with coffee dates. Not forcing employees to give feedback or go to formal meetings opens up opportunity for natural, horizontal communication. This is so crucial in creating a positive company culture where there are no (damaging) secrets. Hiring the right people that are open to this sort of coffee talk is a good first step! Geckoboard has a good system for hiring for culture fit that is long-lasting:

    Thanks for sharing, Jack! It sounds like Sprout knows their stuff. Keep on keeping on 🙂

    1. thanks Beth! I didn’t trust Alan and his Soy Chais at first either but that quickly changed 🙂

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