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

"A store manager's job is not to oversee millions of customer transactions a week, but one transaction millions of times a week."

- Onward, page 201

It’s been a long time since a business biography resonated with me as much as Onward did.  In fact, I can’t remember the last time.

Full of prudent advice, emotionally engaging stories and a testament to the power of executing on a clear vision, Onward is a story about Starbucks’ ceo (they lower case all titles) Howard Shultz’s return from retirement, and his mission to return the coffee giant into the passion-driven company he’d once envisioned.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

The Most Important Number

"Success is not sustainable if it's defined by how big you become.  Large numbers that once captivated me - 40,000 stores! - are not what matter.  The only number that matters is "one".  One cup.  One customer. One partner.  One experience at a time.  We had to get back to what mattered most."
- Onward, page 156

In 2007, Howard Shultz returned from retirement to once again sit atop the world’s most prominent coffee company.  As Howard recounts, Starbucks had become a victim of its own success, focusing on growth for growth’s sake, rather than staying focused to the core values of celebrating coffee in a way that embraced its inherent social element.

Regardless of the size of our businesses, the lesson from Onward is applicable to us all: when our focus shifts from providing value (and growing as a result) to growing for growth’s sake, we make an almost invisible shift away from the soul of our business – a shift that can easily lead to capitulation and death.

Now, more than ever, the customer is expecting a wonderful, personal experience when they interact with their product or service companies.  When you start seeing them as “yet another transaction,” you disappoint that expectation; a disappointment that they likely won’t tolerate for long.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Transcending Transaction

"Our partners' attitude and actions have such great potential to make our customers feel something."
- Onward, page 117

What do your customer interactions look like?  Are you sharing a moment, or simply completing a transaction?  When someone gives you money – be it $5 or $5000 – you have an opportunity for connection.  That person has decided that something you offer is worth them parting with their hard earned dollars.  You’ve already won the sale, but have you won the relationship?  Have you captured the consumer’s imagination and affirmed for them that this was absolutely a great use of their money?

Great companies (Starbucks included) use the moments that already exist in their businesses to build real connections; to interact with the customer in a way that gives them what they expected and a positive feeling from the experience.

What moments already exist in your business that could be better harnessed to truly connect with the customer?

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Fixing Moments or Solving Problems?

"We are spending so much of our time fixing moments, but not actually solving problems.  But fixing moments, like mopping a dirty floor, only provides short-term satisfaction.  But take the time to understand the cause of the problem - like how to keep a floor from getting so dirty in the first place - solves, and maybe eliminates, a problem for the long run."
- Kristen Driscoll, Starbucks Regional Director, as quoted in Onward, page 285

At Starbucks, they call it “fixing moments”.  I call them “putting out fires”.

One of the biggest challenges facing Shultz upon his return to the ceo seat was to not plug the leaking holes, but to actually overhaul the boat so that the holes wouldn’t leak again.  So often, we perceive ourselves as too time starved to really solve a problem.   Sure, we slap a fix together and make the pain go away, but before we properly address the true nature of the problem, our time is demanded elsewhere and we’re off to battle another fire.

Time is scarce.  We get that.  But something’s got to give.  Being in a constant loop of putting out fires for 40 hours a week is exhausting and ultimately leads to burnout.  Truly solving a problem, however is energizing.  It’s inspiring, and it acts as a fresh start for new, innovative ideas to spring into being.  The next time you find yourself “fixing a moment,” take a breath and think through how long it would take to actually solve the problem, once and for all.  Especially when you think about how often you are putting out the same fire, solving the problem may actually save you time, in the long run.  It really comes down to thinking, rather than simply responding.

Onward is a book written with passion.  Howard Shultz shows how caring deeply about something, and then acting on that – even when those actions fly in the face of conventional wisdom – is not only personally rewarding, but leads to a solid bottom line.  At over $10 billion in revenues last year and a share price that’s risen over 400% since Shultz re-instilled his passion for people and coffee into the business, Starbucks is a shining example of how important purpose is to companies, regardless of their size.

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Chris Taylor

ABOUT Chris Taylor

Founder of Actionable Books, Chris Taylor is a writer, entrepreneur and speaker. He spends his daylight hours helping consultants and employees alike find meaning in their work and discover rich team relationships through his company, Actionablebooks...
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