Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Review -- Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul

Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul
Howard Schultz with Joanne Gordon

Starbucks holds a special place in my life. Although my love of all things Seattle (and therefore my admiration of all companies Seattle) is natural considering that's where I was born, it was not until I moved to Los Angeles that I really became enamored with the Seattle coffee icon. Coffee was not something I regularly drank until my senior year of college, and then it was the mass quantity brewed in the cafeteria, and only at those times when papers were due and I was frantically starting to write them. After college, my move to Los Angeles and that's where Starbucks became a part of my life and a ritual for me. In the early years, it was Saturday afternoons in Encino where I would sit at the fountain and read. Later, it was Monday nights in Monrovia where I'd meet with 2-3 guys from church (that cafe always had great notes from teachers and drawings from children on the wall). And Friday mornings in Pasadena where the line was always out the door and the baristas greeted us outside and took our orders, handing handwritten notes to a second barista who would run the orders back inside. And then after we came back up here when a new store opened and I would work there for four hours every Thursday morning to try to get a different perspective on my work (until sadly new management at work put an all-hands meeting on Thursday mornings).

Shortly after we were married, my wife presented me with an espresso machine. I had to consult the manual most times I wanted to use it and did not use it enough to really get the hang of it. I still drink the office drip, and often on weekends will drink a low quality brand in a cheap coffee maker because it's easy and because it's inexpensive. Really inexpensive. My coffee snob friends deride me for it.

But it does make my trips to Starbucks all the more special. I do not take them for granted. The trips to Starbucks for me are a joyful experience. Whenever my daughter and I take daddy/daughter day, Starbucks is always our first stop. My favorite was the store in Bellevue while hers was the store at Westlake. One time the primary purpose of our daddy/daughter day was a pilgrimage to 15th. Avenue Coffee & Tea. Bummed when it got changed back to a regular Starbucks. I have not been inside the Starbucks at Pike Place, but we did go past it that same day and my daughter later told my wife proudly that she'd gotten to see the first Starbucks.

Starbucks is comfort. It's got a greet feeling, a great atmosphere, a great smell. (And they need one closer to work.) It's where I went after someone ran into my car. It's where I went after I accidentally painted by car white. It's where I went on my last day at work in Los Angeles. It's where we'd walk to (the really neat one in the atrium of the Disney Channel building in Burbank) when enduring a really difficult day at Warner Bros. Online. It's a place I would sneak off to on Orange Grove in Northwest Pasadena, a very unlikely place to find a Starbucks (in the parking lot with a grocery store that was difficult to enter or exit because of the methods used to prevent cart theft) and whose baristas were some of the friendliest ones you'd ever meet.

So a few weeks ago Lori handed me "Onward" - she had grabbed it from the library. And even here, I felt connected - I've used that phrase before. It's a great phrase. No matter where we've been or what just happened, it's time to press forward. There may be lessons to learn, there may be pieces to pick up, there may be things that need to change, but at the same time, we need to press forward.

I haven't read a lot of books like these, the only other two I can think of were "Be My Guest" about Conrad Hilton and "DisneyWar" about Michael Eisner's term at the helm of Disney. In both cases, I found the books really captured my imagination, but they also ended too soon. But Onward looks at late 2007 to late 2009, a timeframe still very fresh in my mind. It was exciting to be tracking along with stuff I had lived through myself:

* I took a group of my colleagues on a field trip to Starbucks to check out the then-newly-launched Starbucks Digital Network to see what we might learn from their offering and to ask my own colleagues to think differently "If Starbucks were building our website, what would they do differently?" - a result of that visit led to a brief conversation with Starbucks cio (they lowercase all their titles) Stephen Gillett.

* The book mentioned the closing of a Starbucks here in Federal Way and I couldn't remember one closing only to search on the interet and find my own post as a top result.

* The introduction of VIA, the introduction and later reabsorbtion of 15th. Ave., the layout change in Bellevue, the more recent layout change at Federal Way Crossings (hooray to getting rid of that really large shelf-wall), the news of Michelle Gass' appointment to the head of Seattle's Best Coffee.

It was cool to read of things I had seen from the outside as a fan and customer (and minor, minor shareholder.)

Ok, fine, what does this have to do with the book itself? Not much, except to say that if you are a Starbucks fan, you will probably enjoy this book.

Like I said, this book covers two years of recent economic downturn which Starbucks weathered along with the rest of the economy, and how it made Starbucks really confront what was going on. (I always marveled at this shopping complex in Arcadia - which had a Starbucks to the SW of the grocery store, another to the east of the grocery store and a third one inside the grocery store.) It wasn't an easy time... store closures, layoffs, really painful stock valuations, failure of a new product. But it was also a time of big changes and returning to their roots, including the notion that the great smell was important and going back to grinding beans in the stores.

This book is divided into 31 short chapters with titles like "Magic," "Loyalty," "Nimble," and "Innovate." in five parts: Love, Confidence, Pain, Hope and Courage. Each chapter began with a simple introduction in large type that draws you in with foreshadowing or teasing what would be covered in that chapter. It kept me reading many a night when I should have stopped and headed off to bed. The hardback copy I had clocks in at 328 pages including a final "Tribute" chapter but not including index and acknowledgements and stuff.

I found the book very inspirational. While I'm sure no workplace is perfect and I'm sure that this is designed to paint the best possible picture even in the midst of the pain, it really makes Starbucks sound like a great place to work and Howard Schultz a person who really cared about his baby. I enjoyed learning that he had one of his Il Giornale (the chain he started after leaving Starbucks before having the opportunity to buy Starbucks) was in Columbia Center where there are now two Starbucks, one on the ground floor and a second on the (I think) 76th. floor. I enjoyed learning how they had subtlety experimented with Lean to improve the cafes. (Memo to self: check out Lean.) I enjoyed the conversation he sought out with a man in Italy because of the obvious pride that man had in his shop and how the man kept them in rapt attention for hours talking of his passing for his store, only near the end (not knowing what Starbucks was), asking Howard Shultz how many coffee shops he had. (Answer: 16,000.)

And most importantly, four points that resonated most deeply with me:

First on pages 206 and 207 (I put a note from my daughter that reads "I (heart) you, daddy" at this point in the book so that I'd remember to come back to it - the idea of "love" - we often give people the opportunities to feel pride in their jobs, to feel satisfaction, to feel a sense of accomplishment, but do we give them reasons to love their job, to love what the company they work for stands for? For most of us, our workplace is where we spend the second biggest part of our day, and home is only first because that's where we sleep. Even in the non-profit where I work, I know that we feel called by God, we feel a sense of duty, we can see the tangible efforts of our work in lives changed, and if we make it out into the world, we actually see the faces of people who are being helped by the work we do (because of the donors who believe in us). But do we foster environments where our colleagues and employees can truly love not just what they do, but the organization itself? And how about our constituents/donors? Do they feel love? This is one I think I need to personally spend a lot of time thinking about. I think there's more that can be done here and I think this book has helped me to phrase this question in a way that I can spend time ruminating on it. I may be a line-level manager now, but there are people who report to me, excellent people who do a great job, who are passionate about their work, but do they love it? And in time, I may be given more and more responsibility. Can I make sure I'm doing my part to create an environment where that love just comes naturally?

Second, Howard mentions something he looks for in the people he promotes. When I read that, I did that thing like Joey did when he found out about Chandler and Monica - that uncontrolled "oh, oh!" pointing thing where he's just been let in on a huge secret and cannot contain himself. The idea that some people can get so good at managing up and playing politics that they neglect managing down well. That was a huge eye-opener for me. This has something I had sensed but could never articulate, or wasn't smart enough to actually figure out. I know people like this - they are so good at making sure they have friends, making sure that they know just what to say, making sure that the people above them on the org chart are comfortable that they're not really leading the people below them. But I had never understood it in those terms before. It's also a great warning for me as I move up the org. chart, to make sure that while I get better at managing up, I don't start to neglect leading (down) and innovating in the areas that's appropriate at my own level - not just simply doing whatever else is asked of me, but seizing on areas that need improvement and leading into those areas on my own initiative.

Third, make sure you know where your core is and that you're working towards and from that core. You could say "Starbucks just sells coffee." but if you look at the cafes (I hate the idea of calling them "stores," personally) - they are selling an experience, a connection that centers around coffee. But there's distribution, sourcing of coffee beans and relationships with farmers, leadership in areas of sustainability and the environment, retail products in grocery stores, partnerships with other companies that license the brand in order to feature Starbucks coffee in their own restaurants or Starbucks cafes in their hotels, it's the employing of enough people to do all that work. It's a big deal and making sure you're grounded in why you do what you do is really important to make sure you don't move into areas for which you are unsuited or which will only serve to distract you.

Finally, the summarization of what Howard himself learned in the two years covered by the book:

Grow with discipline. Balance intuition with rigor. Innovate around the core. Don't embrace the status quo. Find new ways to see. Never expect a silver bullet. Get your hands dirty. Listen with empathy and overcommunicate with transparency. Tell your story, refusing to let others define you. Use authentic experiences to inspire. Stick to your values, they are your foundation. Hold people accountable but give them the tools to succeed. Make the tough choices; it's how you execute that counts. Be decisive in times of crisis. Be nimble. Find truth in trials and lessons in mistakes. Be responsible for what you see, hear, and do. Believe.

Phenomenal, gripping book. Very inspiring. Probably goes without saying that I recommend this book to anyone who likes Starbucks or is in a management role of any kind themselves.
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