Book Review: Onward by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz (Scheduled release date, March 29, 2011)

"One cup. One customer. One partner. One experience at a time. We had to get back to what mattered most." Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul, the latest book authored by Starbucks CEO Howard D. Schultz, is slated for public release on March 29, 2011.  I just finished reading it today, March 19, 2011.  Here's my book review:

The book starts strong and ends strong.  One of the beginning stories involves how Starbucks closed all their stores in February 2008 for Espresso Excellence training of their baristas.  We learn that this was an early step in delivering a more consistent beverage to customers.  Your drink should be perfect no matter which Starbucks you visit.

This is an emotional book to read. It's written with a very genuine tone of voice, and at times you hear Howard Schultz admit the mistakes Starbucks made as a corporation, admit the problems caused by hubris, and even admit areas where he could grow in his own personality.  The book is a great read for many reasons, but this authenticity that runs through the book is amazing.  It sounds like Howard Schultz talking right to you.  (Having at least met Howard Schultz a couple of times, and having heard him speak at public events, I feel as though I can say that.  I should be clear that I don't really know Howard Schultz. I could never call him up and say, 'How about lunch at Pasta Freska on Westlake?' Rather, I do have at least a minimal sense of what he sounds like in terms of style from his public speaking events.)

Here's a small example of what I mean:

"If not checked, success has a way of covering up small failures, and when many of us at Starbucks became swept up in the company's success, it had unintended effects.  We ignored, or maybe we just failed to notice, shortcomings.

We were so intent upon building more stores fast to meet each quarter's projected sales growth that, too often, we picked bad locations or didn't adequately train newly hired baristas.  Sometimes we transferred a good store manager to oversee a new store, but  filled the old post by promoting a barista before he or she was properly trained.  This was the kind of operational rigor that we let slip ..." (Onward pg. 40)

Here's another example of the humanizing moments in the book.  Howard Schultz is describing his tone of voice in a phone call with Chris Bruzzo (vp, brand, content & online) just a few months before the birth of MyStarbucksIdea.com:

"My tendency to let enthusiasm morph into impatience was a trait widely known throughout the company - generally appreciated, but occasionally a cause of frustration." (Onward pg. 125)

For those who are curious, MyStarbucksIdea.com was originally dubbed  "Project Greenstorm" during the internal development phases.

Most of the book covers the years 2008 and 2009.  These were years full of moments of emotions, angst, fear, pain, and success.  The section of the book on the 2008 Leadership Conference is called "A Galvanizing Moment" and it's extremely heartwarming to read.  It's amazing to think of the sheer volume of work done by partners in New Orleans to help restore that city, and just as importantly, the commitment Starbucks made to Leadership Conference during a time of financial uncertainty.  Starbucks partners planted 6,500 plugs of coastal grasses, installed 10 picnic tables, and laid four dump truck loads of mulch.  They painted 1,296 steps, 12 entrance ramps, hundreds of yards of railing, and more.  They cleaned 22 city blocks of streets and storm drains.  (Onward pg. 199).

Chapter 28 is called "Conviction" and it chronicles the development of Via Ready Brew.   In its development stages it was known at one time as "JAWS" (just add water, stir) and also "stardust."  The name of the product honors the original developer of the product, who brought the creativity and development of Via to Starbucks: Donald Valencia.  At one time, before I tried Via, I too was a skeptic, but I have to admit that the incredible convenience of it appeals to me.  I've given in, and now I join in with others as a Via fan.

The book is a must read.  It starts off early by even providing the reader with the genesis of the hallmark sign off phrase of Howard Schultz, "Onward."  We learn that he first used that phrase in a letter when he was operating his Il Giornale coffee house (this is now Starbucks store 101).

Read Onward.  Your heart might race a little, and you'll see the human side of a big company.

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Switching gears a moment, I suspect that a few people reading this are asking themselves, 'Melody, how did you get your hands on this book early?'  There is no glamorous answer.  I >wish< I could say that Starbucks provided me with an early edition, but nothing could be further from the truth.  (I may still try to get an autographed copy, if possible.)  The answer really was simply a glitch on Amazon.de.  One morning I was engaged in a twitter conversation with Sebastian Birr and HausofMarkDavid, and Sebastian alerted my attention to the fact that the Amazon.de website showed that Onward is scheduled to be shipped on the 16th.  In the couple of hours that we twittered, Amazon.de fixed the mistake on their website, but not before I got a chance to order one.  I paid a small fortune in shipping to quickly get the book from Germany to Seattle.  I think it is a little ironic that the book came to me from some Amazon.de warehouse in Germany, when both Starbucks and Amazon.com are Seattle-based corporations.  That's the honest answer as to how I got the book early.

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Other people might be thinking, 'Melody, you can't possibly have liked or agreed with everything in the book?'  It's quite true that there were a few moments that I cringed as I read it.  Over years of posting online, both here and other sites, I'm becoming increasingly cautious about what I write.  I want to be able to maintain some kind of eye contact with Starbucks executives, if I should meet them in person.  ;) There were a couple of places in the book Howard Schultz seemed to suggest that he has restored the aroma of coffee in the stores with the introduction of Pike Place Roast.  He credits the renewed grinding coffee in the stores as the answer to bringing back the aroma of coffee.  As I write this, Pike Place Roast is still my very least favorite Starbucks coffee, and I don't really think that the aroma of coffee is prevalent in a typical Starbucks.  There are a few other things that make me wince a little, but very few.  There are blog posts starting to pop up in a number of places about Onward, and this professional's blogger take on it is quite interesting!  I can't really agree with that, but certainly think it's an interesting perspective.

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I hope you'll read the book too, and tell me what you think.

The tiny Starbucks at 359 Grant Avenue in San Francisco

Memoirs of a 19 year-old Starbucks store in San Francisco (My siren episode #3 - 1987 to 1992 logo)