Posted by: wordsmithsuk | June 17, 2011

Review of ‘Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul’ by Howard Shultz

This review was first published on trainingzone.

The day after finishing this book I popped into a Starbucks in Bristol to assess to what extent Howard Shultz has indeed succeeded in his mission to be the ‘undisputed coffee authority’ and ‘ignite the emotional attachment with our customers’. Well it was 4/10 on the first aim and maybe 6/10 on the second. This was a reasonable cup of coffee in a nice atmosphere with efficient baristas who did at least make eye contact as they served you.

Howard Schultz is the man who built Starbucks up from 11 stores in the US to thousands across the globe. In doing so, he brought Italian coffee and its associated culture to the whole world. The company thrived and two decades later Shultz stepped down as CEO leaving others in day-to-day control of the enterprise. However, when the economy entered the 2008 recession, Starbuck’s revenues entered a downward spiral. ‘Onward’ is the story of how the elder statesman rode to the rescue and, with all guns firing, helped the company regain its former success – without losing its soul.

In this book, Shultz works hard at describing the nuances of bringing the company back into profit: this complex tale spans 40 years of rags to riches, back to rags and once again to riches. There were endless meetings, sleepless nights, store closures, layoffs, improvement ideas, cost cutting drives and a massive technology revolution. But success did not arrive instantly. Sales (and Starbucks’ stock market value) only began to rise again with the recent economy improvements.

Shultz is aware of how difficult it is for most people to appreciate the nuances of what he did to re-invigorate this well-known coffee shop chain. But he insists that Starbucks is not simply a coffee company that serves people ‘it is a people company that serves coffee’.

How you react to this book will depend on who you are. There may be much of interest to MBA students, management trainers, executive coaches and business leaders: those who look for leadership models and innovative theories. Starbucks managers, partners, shareholders and other stakeholders (including regular customers) may also find the story interesting  – if only to measure Shultz’ words against their own experience. Some will find this tale enlightening and motivating. Others may find it hard to recognise the passion that Howard describes in their personal experience and daily routines.

By contrast, ordinary readers (like me) are likely to find the story rather tedious and overblown. Do I really need to know all this detail – everything from breakfast sandwiches, types of coffee, the roller coaster of emotions and what seems like every word of every speech over a period of three years? Can it be true that serving a cup of coffee is more about  respect, dignity, passion, authenticity and community than simply grinding beans and serving the cup with a nice smile?

In the end, how you react depends on how far you agree with a corporate consultant’s comment: ‘They have to stop taking themselves so seriously. Let’s face it – it’s still coffee, it’s not brain surgery’.

Have you read this book? What are your thoughts? I’d love to know whether or not you agree with me.


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