Use Learning to Create Opportunity - Stories from 3 Operations Leaders

Julie Jones
Oscar Wilde, an Irish author and poet has written, “When it rains, look for rainbows; when it’s dark, look for stars.” This quote speaks to me as a learner. Learning is a pathway to progress, a tow truck to help you get unstuck, a bridge to new insights, and manna for the soul. I could continue this list forever. Too often, adults equate learning with a classroom, an academic degree or certification and something pushed to the back burner when time is limited. It is common to hear statements like, “I don’t have time for learning or I’m not sure what else I would need to know.”

It is also easy to become “efficient” when pressed for time. You use what you already know and apply what has worked in the past instead of digging a little deeper and stretching your learning muscles. But, will what has worked in the past be what is required for the new state of work? Sadly, the answer is probably no.

Every person has their own way they learn best.  Research has identified 4 to 7 types of preferred learning styles and include styles such as visual, auditory, kinesthetic, reading/writing, verbal, logical or mathematical, social, or solitary styles.

In my decades of workplace experience, I have observed three distinct learning styles. I call these explorer, scientist, and thinker learners. Most people don’t use only one learning style but do seem to have a primary preference. They pull in a complementary style when the need exists.  

Explorer style learners appreciate experience, and an adventure is even better. They also like learning to be a shared experience. Explorers want to establish their own process and structure based on how they learn best. The explorer style can be seen as learning your way out. Explorers are immersive learners; they thrive when content and activity are paired. Experience and activity help them make sense of their knowledge and how it is applied for work.

Scientist style learners appreciate a process for learning, ways to organize and reflect on information, and want check-ins with others to help them stay on track and assess understanding. They like a plan, a list, and to dedicate time for learning and to assess outcomes. Scientist learners have a plan and direction to grow skills and confidence. The scientist style can be seen as learning your way in. Scientists plan for and uncover the information like layers of an onion that will help them be successful. The intentional approach and structure of learning itself help scientist learners make sense of their knowledge and how it is applied for work.

Thinker style learners like time to process information and reflect. Likely, they also combine an explorer or scientist style based on how they work best but want to dedicate time to think, consider, ponder, or process learning. Thinker learners make sense of things in their heads before making a commitment out loud or providing judgement. These learners thrive when they are given time and space to form their own ideas and thoughts instead of being pushed for an answer or idea right away. The thinking process helps them make sense of their knowledge and how it is applied for work.



Stretching your learning muscles is also called learning agility – the ability to learn, adapt, and evolve to constantly changing situations. Agile learners become experts at learning IN the job rather than in addition to their job. But how do you accomplish learning IN the job? What are the key elements that support IN job learning?   

Learning IN the job requires a broader definition of what is considered learning. Too often, learning is viewed as reading a book or taking a class or a workshop - often separate from the workplace. But IN job learning should connect the knowledge or skill you need for your role and will include any activity that increases your knowledge, awareness, or application of skills. It includes elements such as stretch assignments, social learning with others – conversations with peers, sales representatives, consultants or conferences, a learning plan or list of learning activities, job shadowing, tours, feedback, self-reflection, and journaling all of which provide learning opportunities.  

It is also important to consider the learning development matrix developed by Morgan McCall, Michael Lombardo, and Robert Eichinger of the Center for Creative Leadership in the 1980s. Learning IN the job supports their model of successful educational experiences. Termed the 70/20/10 model -- 70% of learning is experiential, 20% of learning is social – learning with and from each other, and 10% of learning is formal via classes, courses, or content.

Take a moment or two, can you write down two things you have learned in the past week when you use the broader definition? How did you apply it for skill or performance? The process of reflection helps embed the learning and further develop skill and/or experience. HOW AGILE IS YOUR LEARNING? HOW WELL DO YOU LEARN IN THE JOB?  
Consider these questions for learning IN the job:

Explorer Learners:  What are you curious about at work or in your career? What do you want to explore or discover?

Scientist Learners:  What level of process, structure, and level of organization feeds your learner’s soul? What helps you excel in learning?

Thinker Learners:  What makes sense now?  What still challenges you?  What do you want to know more about?

For this month’s post, I interviewed three operations leaders who embrace learning, possibility, and learning IN the job. Scroll down to learn more from these healthcare foodservice explorer, scientist, and thinker learner leaders.

A special thank you to Sergio Alonso, from Lee Health in Fort Myers, Florida, Tiara Strahan, from St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, and Eric Eisenberg, from Rogue Valley Manor in Medford, Oregon for sharing their learning stories.   

Director, Food and Nutrition, cohort retail Lead
Lee memorial Health Care Fort Myers, Florida
Tenure - 5 years

Sergio Alonso

Sergio has a long history in foodservice that started at age 12 when he started washing dishes for a family restaurant. The hospitality bug bit him and he worked and managed banquet halls, developed his culinary skills and owned 2 restaurants and a catering company as well. His EXPLORER LEARNING STYLE was solidly formed when he spent 8 years as musician tour chef supporting diverse artists such as Marc Anthony, ZZ Top, Kenny G, and Styx to name a few. Each tour, each site, and each artist brought new challenges, logistics to solve, and culinary creativity. Daily, he had to learn and pivot. 

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Julie: I’m impressed with your positive outlook about experience and learning. You seem to apply it broadly in your life. How do you connect the dots between experience and learning? 

Sergio: It begins with curiosity. I’ve developed the skill to learn and pivot; I build on previous experiences when faced with new challenges. I want to learn from and with other people and especially those with broader work and life experience. I’ve had many mentors who have invested in me and provided great insights.  Tapping into the knowledge of others means you get vast years of experience instead. Then, I ask lots of questions. I call myself, Young Sheldon.  

Julie: Tell me about some ways you have recently learned “IN” the job.

Sergio: Recently, I attended a GPO Summit. It was mind blowing. The summit included everything – learning, networking, and GPO team support.  Now I feel like I understand what the GPO is and what it means.  Experiencing the summit promoted my learning.

Since the summit, I have been able to reach out to vendors directly for any issues. And, we have also realized a savings of $300,000 even in the early stages of this process. So, I not only learned but we were able to turn it into a benefit for the organization as well.  

Julie: What has helped you become a more successful learner?

My leader, Dave Reeves, helped set the plate for learning.  He set up contacts with other healthcare and GPO leaders in advance of the summit making it easier for me to get comfortable with people and learning. He also role models learning and the power of connecting with others for learning.

I have been fortunate to have had other mentors who made it easier for me to learn as well. I also give myself “Now I Get It Moments” which means I take some time in self-reflection. Little by little, I also think about how I spend my time and make sure I remain present and ready to process learning. This thinking has helped me become more efficient and intentional with learning.

Julie: What advice to you have for others on building learning IN their job especially for other explorers?

  • Every day is a learning day.  The day you stop learning is the day you stop moving forward.
  • Start a daily learning list and dedicate time on your calendar for learning.
  • Keep your mind open and be a sponge.
  • Never ever discount an idea until you fully explore the idea – especially when problem solving, and you think you know the answer.
  • Find a learning mentor(s) and be a learning mentor.
  • Think, do, and share learning with others.
  • Role model learning for others on your team and give people the license to challenge your ideas.  

Learning has helped me become more effective in my role. I can see progress and I think I am accomplishing more even with the pandemic.
Kay Cafe supervisor, starbucks manager
st. jude children's hospital Memphis Tennessee
Tenure - 8 years

Tiara Strahan

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Tiara started at a Starbucks as a barista after high school. She worked there for about three years and then joined the Starbucks St. Jude team as a barista.  After a month or so, Tiara became a supervisor.  When you meet her, you wouldn’t be surprised that she became a leader at an early age. Her positive energy is infectious! In her tenure at St. Jude, they have grown from one Starbucks location to two, and recently, Tiara has also taken on an additional leadership role for the St. Jude Gift Shop. 

Tiara is grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in the St. Jude Leadership Academy and graduation ceremony. She felt the Academy helped her learn how to be a supervisor. Tiara was very hands-on in the operation because she worked as a barista. She said she had to grow more comfortable with the back-of-house administrative tasks that required her to build the team and their skills so that she could step away. She laughed as she said,” I struggled with the concept of sales. But I figured it out, including how to balance competing priorities -the service and support needs of St. Jude against the growth needs of Starbucks.” Her favorite content was learning about how to work with different personalities. This learning helped her gain confidence in working through the unique situations she faced at work.

She demonstrates a SCIENTIST LEARNING STYLE where there is a plan and direction to grow skills and confidence. In each of her transitions, she has a plan for learning!  

Julie: I’m impressed with your ability to focus and embrace the additional gift shop functions despite the ongoing pandemic challenges. You demonstrate great energy and a can-do spirit. What motivates you?   

Tiara: I want to show growth. I have done Starbucks for so long. I am ready to embrace a new challenge. I want to demonstrate dedication and commitment, so others know I’m prepared for the opportunity.

Julie: Everett Rogers popularized the concept of an S curve as he described how new technologies and ideas spread. Whitney Johnson also believes the S curve describes the trajectory of gaining competence and expertise within a performance domain. She terms it the S Curve of Learning. 

At the beginning (of a new job or function) which she terms the launch point, learning is slow, frustrating, and requires effort. Then, the learner begins to pick up speed, gain new skills, and overcome setbacks. She terms this stage the sweet spot, and, at its peak, is mastery. Mastery is when work becomes easier. At this point, the learning curve flattens because there is little left to learn.

When people reach mastery, they need to jump to the bottom of a new S curve and take on new challenge. Otherwise, they may face a decline in skills, motivation, and performance. (Johnson, W. Manage your organization as a portfolio of learning curves. Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2022). 

The S Curve answers Tiara’s what’s next question.

Julie: How important has it been for you to frame the new learning in the context of what you already know? 

Tiara: I have a strong focus on customer service, which is a natural extension of my Starbucks sales and customer experience. I know this skill easily transfers to the gift shop. Hospitality skills are always a plus. The hardest thing for me is there is no “How To” manual like Starbucks has. I’m making my own notes and processing my own learning.

Julie: What advice do you have for others as they take on new assignments or roles?

Tiara: Be open, be willing to learn, and be willing to be wrong. I am becoming a beginning learner again. It’s frustrating since I was very competent in the Starbucks world. And I can’t be afraid to try or let fear hold me back.

Julie: What did you have to do to better prepare for the new role and learning IN the job?

I had to become better at time management and dedicate time in my schedule for both operations and learning.  Plus, learning progress check-ins with others also helps me be accountable for this learning.  I knew my team was ready to do more, and I had to let them own their jobs. It was harder for me than I thought it would be.  The people and the stores are like my babies.  So, I had to trust our team and help them grow.  But also let them know I was available to them but in a different way.

Julie: What is your learning plan, or what activities have you done to learn IN the job?

Tiara: I have a planned list of learning activities.  This list keeps me focused and on track with learning. I have a created book of information, and I started by taking on small tasks and organizing them in a way that made sense for me. I started first by creating an annual events calendar so that I could better understand the flow/activities that impact the products and services we offer in the Gift Shop. I am slowly uncovering the purchasing process that is different from my experience at Starbucks. I’ve embraced learning from others including current and previous gift shop employees and vendors who can provide insight.

Michael Vetro, my leader at St. Jude, has been extremely supportive of me and the learning required for this role. We check in frequently to gauge progress. He also provided additional resources and learning opportunities to help me as well. In addition, he also has realistic expectations about what we will be able to accomplish.

Julie: What advice do you have for others on building learning skills?


  • Be open and willing.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail.
  • Plan ahead– Add learning activities to your to-do list and allow yourself at least 10 minutes to recap learning from the previous day or week.
  • Plan, plan, plan! Planning and structure help me feel more comfortable with learning.

Personally, I am proud of the balance I have gained through learning. I have more organization skills, and I have learned to trust my employees more. I know that I can’t do it all, and I don’t have all the answers. Help is just a phone call away, and I shouldn’t be afraid to ask. But I am also starting to make sense of gift shop operations and the culture. So, we have made progress!   
Director, dining services
rogue valley manor Medford oregon
Tenure - 4 1/2 years

Eric Eisenberg, CEC, CCA, CDM, CFPP

It doesn’t take long in any conversation with Eric to recognize that he embraces learning and opportunities. He reflects easily about his learning choices and how they have helped him advance his career.  Eric’s first career choice was the theatre, and he had the acting bug.  So, he turned to restaurants in both front of the house and back of the house positions since he thought these positions would give him a more flexible schedule necessary for acting.  He describes his lifestyle at this point as very nomadic.  He went to work for Marriott and entered a management track.  But he missed the kitchen and returned to culinary.

His chef pushed him to earn a French credential and Eric obtained a 3-month Stage apprenticeship in a restaurant in France.  He wanted to extend his experience and ended up as a chef’s apprentice at Le Cordon Bleu with partial tuition and, from there, a family restaurant in France. The owner of the restaurant connected him with a New York City restaurant where he got his first executive chef job.  In his case, learning opportunities opened doors for him.  Eric eventually made his way to Swedish Hospital in Seattle, his first job in healthcare which he saw as a pit stop to something else.

Eric uses both THINKER AND EXPLORER LEARNING STYLES. Eric says that over time he has learned to take a moment of pause to get out of his own head which means stopping and reviewing or reflecting and taking the time to hear other perspectives.

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Julie: I’m impressed with your ability to self-reflect and consider what you have learned. What ways have you used to prompt self-reflection, pause, or slowdown from the intensity of your day? 

Eric: This moment of pause is something I have learned over time.  At some point, I learned the STAR method – Stop, Think, Act, and Review.  When I feel like I am pushing the momentum of the conversation or overstepping filling in the blanks by what I think I know, it’s time for me to push my stop button and take time to think.  This reflection makes me willing to reverse direction especially if I made a mistake or didn’t see the complete picture.

Julie: You are also taking on a new role as the President of the Association for Healthcare Foodservice while carrying a large regular workload. How has this pushed your learning?

Eric: I had no idea about how much I was going to learn in this role.  I observed Ryan Conklin really emerge as a smart, intuitive leader who had passion for the role.  It was a pleasure to watch it unfold. I am excited to attend a CEO symposium to learn more about leading and managing a board which is a new experience for me.  I know this opportunity will have unmeasurable impact on me personally now and in the future.  I feel like I am explorer in a foreign land trying to take it all in and seek the learning opportunities this volunteer role will provide me.  It also gives me the chance to help grow others on the RVM team since I will rely on them more this year.  What do they need from me to be successful?  

Julie: What has helped you become a more successful learner?

Eric: The opportunity to learn – I’m not sure anymore -- the lines have blurred between what learning was “gifted” to me and what learning I sought out.  I like the challenge of learning.  I have always felt a little off balance in my career and learning helps me feel more comfortable.

Recently I participated in a leadership cohort within my company as an elder statesman in the class.  Even when you think you have it covered, there are always more things you can learn.  The experience has been phenomenal; the cohort process has helped me learn more about who I am as a leader and one whose job it is to engage and inspire other people.

Julie: Are there ways that broad learning has helped you get unstuck at work?

Eric: Pre-COVID, I joined the robust theatre community in Medford.  I took on a few roles in different productions including one as the narrator in the adaptation of A Christmas Story.  I didn’t realize that the narrator was On Stage the entire play. I was freaking out about how I could master the narrator’s lines in a 140-page play.

The director told me, “I don’t know how you are going to learn all this.” I took that as my learning challenge.  I partnered with a resident in my community who is a professional actor.  Over lunch, I closed my door and we practiced.

The first few performances were exhausting but I had the chance to deliver in eighteen performances. The theatre opportunity allowed me to completely disengage from work, use a completely different thinking muscle, and I loved it.  I learned that this experience fed and cleansed my soul and it carried over in positive ways in all aspects of my life and work.   

Julie: What advice to you have for others on building learning into their day especially for other Thinker learners?

  • My best days are when I have a chance to STAR - stop, think, act, and review. My worst days are when I make a poor choice from a rash decision.  Even when you don’t think you have enough time, take the time to really dig in.  People including myself want things right now.  I give others more realistic time expectations now.  This helps gives others and me the necessary time to think and process.
  • It is so important to go beyond what you think you know.  Explore how much you really know and compare that to the other facts before judgement whenever you can.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously but appreciate how much you have accomplished.
  • Help others along in their journey.
  • Embrace the learning opportunities – take them as they come. Don’t see them as something you have to overcome.
  • Seek out learning opportunities – Keep being hungry and want to do and know more.

My children have also kept me grounded as a learner. I want them to see me as someone not stuck in my ways and as someone willing to take on new things. Hopefully, this will help them embrace lifelong learning as well.