Onwards: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul

I fell for it! The quote from Warren Bennis on the back cover of Onwards: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul. It read:

“Howard Schultz has written, with aching honesty and passion, the single most important book on leadership and change for our time and for every generation of leaders. This book is not just recommended reading, it’s required.”

Wow! That is quite a claim. Nonetheless, I decided to trust this distinguished business professor who focuses on leading change. Unfortunately, the book did not quite live up to its hyperbolic billing. Unless you really LOVE coffee…. how could it?  One over-riding observation of the book is its propagation of the “Great Man” approach to leadership.  The entrepreneur builds his empire, leaves the top administrative position for the Board, but when things go off the rails he orchestrates his triumphant return, leads the charge, inspires his legions of staff and customers… you get the picture. Of course, things are not smooth in the 2007-2010 period in domestic and world markets so Schultz does document some fantastic ups and downs and provides an interesting, though very detailed, view of his supply chain and operations from beans to baristas.

As a leadership book, Schultz and co-author Joanne Gordon, do consistently highlight the importance of:

  • Focusing on core values: In the case of Starbucks, product quality, social relationships and sustainability.
  • Articulating and communicating a clear vision: Starbucks formulated its 7-point Transformation Agenda and consistently communicated it to partners, shareholders, analysts, media. Particularly in times of organizational uncertainty, it is very helpful for people to feel that there is a clear and logical direction.
  • Allowing room for emergent change within a planned change agenda: Beyond the Transformation Agenda, Starbucks encouraged LEAN principles. Within each store, managers could tweak their processes to improve productivity and, as it applied to them, other locations could adopt the new methods.
  • Ensuring leadership visibility: Schultz’ description of numerous site visits to Starbucks locations as well as to a coffee co-op in Rwanda and the roasting plant, show a commitment to deep listening as well as the classic ‘Management by Walking Around’. He also explains his decision to hold a leadership summit in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans despite the significant cost in a tough business climate as an opportunity to reconnect and re-energize front-line workers.
  • Boosting staff engagement: Leadership visibility and ongoing communication helped build trust in organizational leadership and fostered staff engagement. By renewing its public commitment to sustainability and to the RED initiative to tackle HIV/AIDS, Starbucks aligned the values held by staff with organizational initiatives and built deeper meaning into seemingly mundane, daily tasks. Despite pressure from analysts and shareholders, Shultz also maintained company health-care benefits, demonstrating benevolence and a commitment to staff’s well-being beyond the confines of the operations.  Finally, on a very practical level, Starbucks committed to providing the tools and training needed to improve the store’s daily operations, i.e., training, better IT systems, improved supply chain management.

So there are many great leadership lessons and principles that can be extracted from Onwards (is that a coffee pun?). In particular, I find it refreshing that Schultz admits to certain errors which are usually glossed over in “hero” type narratives. However, there is a LOT of coffee talk. I don’t need to know what kind of coffee Mr. Schultz was drinking when he wrote his memos. I don’t need to know why I’ve been so wrong drinking drip coffee all these years and just how looooooooooooong it took to perfect Pike Place Roast or the VIA instant coffee. But if you like that sort of thing, put a pot on and settle in. There’s quite a bit of detail on roasting, blending, brewing, serving, savouring, etc. It’s interesting but not exactly focused on leadership – except that it highlights the leader’s absolute passion for his product and its delivery.

Another observation I would make is that there is quite a bit of name dropping. It does not mean a thing to me that Shultz is friends with Michael Dell, COSTCO CEO Jim Sinegal, The Limited’s Founder Les Wexner or Bono for that matter. Most importantly, there are numerous references to teams working non-stop, through the night, etc… For example,  “Week-end meetings at my house were quite common” (p.59).

It sounds like Starbuck’s staff were working pretty hard so, Mr. Schultz, PLEASE stop calling them during Thanksgiving dinner, on Christmas Eve, from the plane, to your home on week-ends.

It’s ok to have staff engagement but organizations don’t have a right to invade every moment of people’s private time. Would it really make a difference to delay the development and launch of a loyalty program by a few days?
Overall, an interesting book about change in a global organization during an unprecedented economic period but “the single most important book on leadership and change for our time and for every generation” it is not.

Published by Dominique O'Rourke

Public Affairs professional, City Councillor, MA Leadership graduate, problem solver and lifelong learner.

5 thoughts on “Onwards: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul

  1. Great summary of Onwards! I had it on my reading list; but after your analysis, I actually may take it off. There’s only so much time in a day and this one seems like it might suck up too much. Lots of good books out there.

    Is there a Leadership book in particular that you would recommend?

    1. Curtis,
      Welcome to this blog and thank you for stopping by! Have you read Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer? Marto Morrell and Stephanie Capparell retel the great story of the explorer who led his team out of the pack ice of the Waddel Sea and how transformational leadership applied then and in a modern context. An excellent read. Another good one is Solving Tough Problems by Adam Kahane. He talks about the process by which some of the world’s toughest problems move towards resolution -including ending apartheid in South Africa. A good read about challenging assumptions, listening and finding common ground. Let me know what you think of these and I hope you’ll stop by again.

      1. You’re the second person recommending Shackleton’s Way in as many days. I’ll have to pick it up asap.

        I haven’t heard of the other one, but I’ll add that one to my list a well.

  2. Thanks for this post!! This book is just watiting for me on my ereader. I find it so interesting to read these books (actually almost any book now) and reflect on the book and our leadership learnings from our MA. Great post as always!

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