Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Howard Schultz, chairman, president and C.E.O. of Starbucks. He says that a great leader knows how to demonstrate vulnerability, “because that will bring people closer to you and show people the human side of you.”
To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Bryant: Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss?
Schultz: The first time was when we opened up Il Giornale, which was the coffee-bar business that I started in 1985. At that moment, I realized I was responsible for something much larger than myself — people were relying on me.
Bryant: And was that an easy transition for you?
Schultz: That was a time when we had unbridled enthusiasm for an idea, and I think it covered up a lot of mistakes and it covered up a lot of naïveté. But I also remember at that time writing a memo that has become kind of the template for the culture and values and guiding principles of Starbucks today.
What we set out to do then, and it has held true today, was really try to build a company that had a set of values and guiding principles that were as important as the equity of the brand or the product we were selling.
Bryant: Where did you get the idea to do that?
Schultz: It was my experience as a young child and growing up in Brooklyn, where my dreams were beyond my station in life, and I wanted to build a different kind of company that perhaps my father never got a chance to work for. It came from seeing firsthand that if you were not a highly educated or a very successful person — that perhaps as a blue-collar worker or lower-middle-class person, as my parents were — that the work environment didn’t treat you with a level of respect.
Later on I realized that, not unlike a young child, new businesses are formed in the imprinting stage and organizations have a memory. People have come to me over the years and said to me: “I admire the culture of Starbucks. Can you come give a speech and help us turn our culture around?” I wish it were that easy. Turning a culture around is very difficult to do because it’s based on a series of many, many decisions, and the organization is framed by those decisions.
Here’s one example: In the late-’80s, before we went public in ’92, Starbucks gave comprehensive health insurance to part-time workers and equity in the form of stock options to part-time people. That created an unbelievable connection, and we still do it.
Bryant: What is your advice to an entrepreneur who asks you: “I’m just starting a company. How do I create a culture?”
Schultz: I would say that everything matters — everything. You are imprinting decisions, values and memories onto an organization. In a sense, you’re building a house, and you can’t add stories onto a house until you have built the kind of foundation that will support them. I think many start-ups make mistakes because they are focusing on things that are farther ahead, and they haven’t done the work that has built the foundation to support it.
People ask me what’s the most important function when you’re starting an organization or setting up the kind of culture and values that are going to endure.
The discipline I believe so strongly in is H.R., and it’s the last discipline that gets funded. Marketing, manufacturing — all these things are important. But more often than not, the head of H.R. does not have a seat at the table. Big mistake.
Bryant: What are the some other lessons you’ve learned over the course of your life that have shaped the way you lead?
Schultz: I was part of a family that grew up on the other side of the tracks, and that gave me tremendous motivation to want to exceed at a level that would create an environment for my own family that was different from the one I was in. I also think that I was insecure about being a poor kid, but with that came a sense of values and sensitivity about those people who didn’t get respect and had low self-esteem because of that.
So in the early days of Starbucks, my office was in the roasting plant. And I ended every day by walking the plant floor and thanking people who were the unsung heroes of the company. For many people, that demonstrated that I wasn’t sitting in some ivory tower. I was one of them. And I think the leadership style I have is that I’ve never put myself above anyone else, and I’ve never asked more of anyone than I was willing to do myself.
“You need an idea.”
The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty. I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: “You need an idea.”
You need a tangible idea to get you going. The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun – paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.
Even though I look desperate, I don’t feel desperate, because I have a habitual routine to keep me going.
I call it scratching. You know how you scratch away at a lottery ticket to see if you’ve won. That’s what I’m doing when I begin a piece. I’m digging through everything to find something. It’s like clawing at the side of a mountain to get a toehold, a grip, some sort of traction to keep moving upward and onward.
The unshakeable rule: you don’t have a really good idea until you combine two little ideas.
(Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit)
As I have often said, I believe this: “the more you know, the more you know.” The more you read, the more you hear, the more you experience, the deeper the reservoir of “stuff” that you have to draw from in any and every situation.
In the new book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson, the author makes the case that good ideas come from such a reservoir within. I have already chosen this book as my selection for the December First Friday Book Synopsis, and now I have read this article on the Daily Beast about the author and his book: The Origin of Good Ideas by Joshua Robinson. Here are some excerpts:
Sparks of brilliance, Johnson argues, are actually more like slow burns that develop in places, such as universities, that are teeming with ideas. Even wrong ideas help. An expectant genius waiting for the muse to deliver a fully formed, humanity-advancing idea into his lap can be kept waiting for a long time. Things like evolutionary theory, the internet, and the printing press did not appear miraculously in a dream. Or on a piece of burnt toast.
“I didn’t want it to be a straight sort of business, self-help, management-type book—which I have no interest in writing,” he says. “I did want it to have a feeling where you read it and think, ‘Oh yeah, I could use that.’ When you succeed in writing an idea-book, it becomes this platform that other people get to build on, or take and put to new uses.”
On the final page of the book, he summarizes how the abstract patterns can be applied practically in everyday life to foster more creative, open environments. “Go for a walk,” he writes, “cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent.”
All innovation comes from good ideas. So learning how to find good ideas is a pretty good challenge to tackle. And since innovation is one of the great needs in business, and society, I suspect this will be a fun and valuable book.
You can watch Steven Johnson’s Ted Talk, Where Good Ideas Come From, here.
Update: I’ve now watched the video, and can”t wait to read the book. He talks about the value of a “slow hunch,” he begins and ends with a great coffee house story, and his last line is: “Chance favors the connected mind.” The video is worth watching!