Sunday, June 23, 2013

Servant Leadership...With a Cappuccino

Heading home after a wonderful couple of days in the Great Northwest feeling stimulated and content from an engaging visit with the Starbucks team. Whenever I return from Washington or Oregon there seems to be this warm and compelling emotion that cool shit is going down up there…like a secret that the rest of us are just not let in on. It’s rugged, hip and proud up there. My kinda place.

When one thinks of a truly global brand that is recognizable both in it’s logo, product and atmosphere… a brand that has succeeded in demanding a universal standardization for all of its employees to follow in order to achieve a destination for community and fellowship within it’s walls... Starbucks has to be in the forefront of any list. In my travels all over the world there is one thing for certain… when I encounter the ubiquitous Starbucks store (essentially guaranteed at some point in any journey), the soy chai ice coffee I order will taste just as delicious in Chengdu, China as it will in Boulder, CO.  You know what you’re getting both with the coffee as well as the warm coffee bean smell and soft music that fills the building.

It goes without saying that in order to pull this off there must be a solid quarterback making the calls for the team. I was aware of Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz and his creation and guidance of the global icon over the years. I was only slightly familiar with the fact that he gave up his role as CEO at the turn of the millennium and coincidentally or not, Starbucks lost it’s unique character as well as a large portion of it’s share value. I had heard that he had returned to his role as master executive in mid decade and the ship had been recently righted. I really knew nothing more than this on the Starbucks saga and was quite oblivious to the mystique that surrounded its founder and leader.

Once I arrived in Seattle to provide a keynote to the Supply Chain team, I was alerted that Howard had requested a meeting with me in his office with a couple of his trusted leaders. I was honored and thrilled to meet such a legend of brand development but didn’t really think much about it as I prepared my keynote and breakout sessions for the team. So I thought it somewhat comical when, the night before the meeting, my Starbucks host asked me “Have you thought about what you are going to talk to Howard about tomorrow?” I chuckled a bit and said no, which prompted a very visible nervous twitch in my hosts manner as she was the one that set up the meeting and knew her “time with Howard” reputation would be deeply influenced by the success or failure of this unknown dirtbag, redneck climber dude and his ability to be engaging with one of the worlds leading executives. A bit of a roll of the dice for sure.

The next morning as I strolled down the hall towards the CEO’s office I see this tall, gangly fellow in khakis and a casual button down shirt walking towards us with a gracious and inviting smile. This guy looked happy and affable but not exactly how I would draw up the master chef of a global entity that had $22 billion in sales last year.

“Hi there Jeff, I’m Howard.”

And with that simply greeting, I immediately got it. This guy surely had more important tasks to tend to that morning but he found time to carve out 30 minutes for me in his office and he had done the research to know my name and my bio. He wanted to get to know who this guy was that was coming to potentially influence his most important commodity…his team.

He was inquisitive, required a lot of eye contact and focused on listening to me speak… even when I constantly tried to circle it back and inquire about him and his story. He wanted to know about my background, what drove me to climbing and adventuring around the globe. He was interested in my family, how old my son was. He wanted to know what components of leadership that I felt were the most critical. He asked how my life experiences had crafted my message. He asked and he listened.

You could tell that Starbucks, it’s employees and what the entire brand represents is critical to him. He lives it.

I have been blessed over the years to meet and spend time with some truly transformational individuals who, upon meeting them, you get the sense that they are paradigm shifting, world churning folks… Tom Brokaw, Dave Matthews, George W Bush (disliked yes, transformational and charismatic, also yes), Colin Powell, Sir Edmund Hillary, Tom Robbins (my favorite author), George Bodenheimer (ESPN CEO) and Phakchock Rinpoche (2nd in line to the Dalai Lama) amongst others. Each of these individuals ooze charisma and clearly have that not-easily-quantifiable skill of leading and influencing the masses.

I have also met and spent time with countless executives that, although they carry the prestige and power of a big title and paycheck that comes with it, don’t incite enthusiasm and a “willingness to go to battle” from their team members. They wear their fine Italian suit and slicked back hair so as to look the part but seem to wield very little real influence except for that of fear.

After 30 minutes with Howard, I understood why the Starbucks team regards him as somewhat of a messiah. He lives for them. He asks them to join his family and represent his love child. He feels strongly that Starbucks represents diversity and community.  He has a history of telling his shareholders that there are more important issues than the bottom line…as he succinctly told a conservative, anti-gay-marriage stakeholder at a meeting last year. “Take your investment elsewhere if you don’t value diversity and inclusion” is essentially what he encouraged the narrow minded suit and tie douche. A testimony to the company’s ethos driven home.

The 30 minutes I spent with Howard that day wasn’t really about content and discussing how either one of us facilitates or conducts ourselves when leading teams. I walked away from that encounter understanding the value that a revered leader places on human interaction and dialogue. So much of our interface these days takes place in the buffered and sterile digital world. We are losing the face-to-face encounters that define our relationships and build trust. I for one am making an effort to do more face to facing instead of type to typing.

As I was leaving the Starbucks headquarters I recognized one of Howards assistants strolling my way trying to catch my attention. He handed me over Howards most recent booked titled Onward: How Starbucks Fought For It’s Life Without Losing It’s Soul.  Inside the front cover was a sincere personal note from Howard that he clearly compiled based on our conversation. He was listening.

As I have poured over the book…which is the perfect balance with the other book I’m currently reading, Greg Allman’s, My Cross To Bear (these two guys have lead very different lives by the way)… I have already dog-eared and underlined multiple pages and paragraphs that are very synergistic with my style, message and life approach.

A few of the jewels:

“There are moments in our lives when we summon the courage to make choices that go against reason, against common sense and the wise counsel of people we trust. But we lean forward nonetheless because, despite all risks and rational argument, we believe that the path we are choosing is the right and best thing to do. We refuse to be bystanders, even if we do not know exactly where our actions will lead.
This is the kind of passionate conviction that sparks romances, wins battles, and drives people to pursue dreams others wouldn’t dare. Belief in ourselves and in what is right catapults us over hurdles, and our lives unfold.
“Life is a sum of all your choices,” wrote Albert Camus. Large or small, our actions forge our futures and hopefully inspire others along the way.”

“Dream more than others think practical. Expect more than others think possible. Care more than others think wise.”

“People want guidance, not rhetoric. They need to know what the plan of action is, and how it will be implemented. They want to be given responsibility to help solve the problem and authority to act on it.”

“In times of adversity and change, we really discover who we are and what we're made of.”

That meeting inspired to go on to deliver a very impassioned keynote to the Supply Chain team. Once the smoke settled from that event I was given the opportunity to facilitate a breakout session for the SCO leadership team based on…you guessed it, servant leadership. Providing key characteristics of servant leadership to the team in order for them to enhance the way they interact with their various teams.

The day was a home run.

Leading teams is a unique and subjective process that can be achieved through countless styles and approaches. Some are effective. Some are not. Some influence partners and teammates through inspiration and buy-in. Others coerce subordinates through fear and manipulation.

I can tell you that my approach and style have been profoundly impacted by a brief, simple 30-minute meeting I had a few days ago with a guy who listens and deeply cares about the people around him.

That... and a really well brewed cappuccino.

Climb High