Most of us readily grasp that we can glean valuable insights from our bosses, mentors or colleagues with more seniority at work in our fields.

Not all of those lessons are good, of course. When we see those folks doing stuff that makes us cringe at the office, that’s plenty powerful!

Still, things we pick up from higher-ups, often, can teach us how to navigate office politics, network effectively or execute on the job.

I spoke to a graduate class in public relations awhile back and talked about learning from people in the workplace who might not be so obvious. I was speaking about a few examples, in particular. Here are three people at work I got to know and why the relationships were so valuable. They all cared, amazingly deeply, about doing a bang-up job.

The friendly lady in the cafeteria

She scooped up more pasta and veggies, and less broth, when serving up soup. And she’d let me know if a dish didn’t really live up to its billing.

When I was pregnant and hungry all the time, she offered to keep a jar of my peanut butter on a shelf in the kitchen and spread it on my toast (since the cafe didn’t stock any.)

She clearly cared about her regulars. She tipped me off if the bean soup I was eyeing had bacon in it. She’d ask, genuinely, how I was. And she laughed. A lot.

Nurture a relationship with her. It will repay itself over and over and over.

Willa was the name of the special lady in our cafeteria. And, may she rest in peace, at her funeral, when she was taken too young, it was clear that hordes of others — in addition to her large, loving  family — knew how really special she was, too.

The Intern

He’s keen. And young. Still green, okay. But, he’s ready to learn. And he almost certainly knows more about software or technology, or many other trends, than I do.

Be friendly. Offer to take him (or her) out for a cup of coffee. Share some tips that might seem old hat to you, but that surely a newbie would welcome. These hungry go-getters can awe us with their gumption, work ethic and eagerness. And insight. And talent.

One of my favorite interns while I was at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Tom Benning, is now at the Dallas Morning News and broke some big news during the PR crisis recently plaguing the Komen Foundation.

The mailroom guy

At Christmas, I mail cards to six different countries. And our mailroom guy weighed them all for me, so I could use the correct postage. Larry also made sure he got a package — that I was waiting to be hand-delivered from a source, on deadline — to me as soon as it arrived at the front desk.

When I needed to send a check to Australia to our accountants, overnight, he let me write our publishing company a check for the FedEx shipping fee, and send it out that day. At the time, I didn’t have a separate FedEx account. He devised a solution that helped me, and didn’t cost the company anything — right on the spot.

He smiled often. And he got letters to me whether they had my  married, or my professional name, on them. Larry. Rocked.

Inspiration and personal connection can spring from anywhere

What these, and many other workplace interactions have taught me is that life gives us insight about, and from, people in all different ways. It pays to be open to them. Learn from the rich exchanges you have with people everywhere. You might need to draw on a favor, I told the graduate students. I needed several favors from the three folks I mentioned here.

But you’ll also learn as you watch and interact with others about how they do their jobs and navigate their professional realms. So often, there are valuable lessons there about life. Right on the job.

You might think of three, or more, as well. Who did you learn from? And what were the most poignant stories?