On Corporate Culture & Coffee

January 9th, 2010

I just finished reading a book called Starbucked, A double tall tale of caffeine, commerce, and culture, by Taylor Clark. The book is a 296 page dive into the world of coffee and how it came to prominence in the shape of a square green store with a mermaid logo, maybe you’ve heard of it?

Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with Starbucks. I love the coffee – tall soy no-whip mochas are my drink-indulgence preference, with a maple-nut scone if I’m into treating myself extra special. I hate the idea of patronizing a chain store that is sucking culture out of America and recently the whole world by sticking exact replicas of itself on every side of every street. I love the idea that when I’m traveling in India I can have a sip of something that reminds me of home, and I hate the idea that what comforts and reminds me of home is Starbucks. I love the fact that when I’m working out of the house or in between meetings I can sit in a comfy chair and catch up on email or read a book with free internet, with access to a clean bathroom for a $3.00 price-tag.

So there are clearly plusses and minuses. And I am not the only one noticing the two sides of this mermaid-faced coin.

The question the author asks however, is how much is too much. Starbucks was founded by a coffee-loving fanatic named Howard Schultz who was obsessed with quality and the creation of a third place - a safe, comfortable place where people could just be that wasn’t a bar. Now that sounds like a good idea – kind of like afterschool programs. But somewhere along the way he flipped from creating spaces to making money. The chain went from being a coffee connoisseur with well-informed baristas (Italian for bar-tender) to a drive-through spouting fast paced media add for Akkelah and the Bee with a little bit of coffee in a great big cup of milk, sugar, and caramel syrups. Whip cream on top optional.

Starbucks now operates in every country around the world, with the exception of Israel (where it opened and was forced to close). There is often an outcry when Starbucks begins it’s construction of a space. I was living in Berkeley, CA when the Starbucks on Telegraph by the University of Berkeley announced its grand opening. We all talked about how we would never let that happen. Protests and letters ensued. Three weeks later there was a line out the door and around the corner. Not protestors as you might hope, but caffeine-craved hippies waiting for their fix.

The author asks the question – is it the responsibility of Starbucks to decide it has enough stores around the globe, and to stop Americanizing every place it goes, or does Starbucks pop up around the globe because people keep showing up in droves to buy it’s product? What comes first – the supply or the demand?

The danger of course is that we can easily fall asleep to our values and what’s important. Small towns in America often contain no personality at all – filled with Pottery Barns, Starbucks, Home Depots and Macaroni Grills. What do we lose when small town local businesses consist of one street with 8 boutiques and independent coffee shops? I would like to believe that a place like Berkeley can hold onto it’s unique flavor and character, but it can’t do that without a consciousness of a community. The ability to reflect on what we want our communities to feel like, the quality we demand, and the personal discipline to act on our values become controllers of our future. In an economy where the conscience of businesses are driven by profit and stakeholder return, our only hope is to play the one card we have left – to stifle the demand for those services. It’s hard to make a point in a picket line when folks have a sign in one hand and a tell-tale starbucks cup in the other.

Organizational Design and free markets

February 18th, 2009

I would like the world and our organizations to realize that organizational development is closely aligned with human development. At the root of every management or leadership issue is the theme of two people unable to work together, resulting in conflict (Wheatley, 2006). One of the ideas that have stayed with me from Hesselbein & Goldsmith is the Handy essay on philosopher leaders. Handy frames philosophy not as an answer to life’s problems, but a framework to think about them (pg. 132). I agree with this belief that organizations should model the same beliefs and theories internally that they expect for themselves externally. “One cannot have one law for themselves, and another for the rest.” (Hesselbein & Goldsmith, Pg. 133). I’m not sure exactly what this is called – transference? Essentially it is the idea that we should do for others what we want/need for ourselves. Handy discusses the ways in which organizations that want to be treated as autonomous from government controls, with few regulations and a strong belief in the corrective power of the market should model that same philosophy in their organizational culture- giving their employees a great deal of autonomy, no regulations, and the faith that their intrinsic motivation to preserve themselves will ultimately result in the right decisions for the organization. What would the result of such an unregulated market be? Would it really self-correct?

While I believe in self-regulation and that employees function more efficiently and effectively within an organization when there are low controls, I can’t quite conceive of an organization with no controls, no management or supervision, a “freedom” that allows anyone to work from only their intrinsic motivation to do what’s best for them. In this scenario I can picture too many ways that “what’s good for the goose” won’t be good for the gander. I’d like the world to see this macro paradigm of how our economy functions and decide together what the right limits and controls really should be at the governmental level, and how those controls would filter down to the organizational level, and finally the personal level.

1. Hesselbein, Frances, and Marshall Goldsmith. The Leader of the Future 2 : Visions, Strategies, and Practices for the New Era. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006.

2. Kouzes, James M., and Barry Z. Posner. The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.

3. Wheatley, Margaret J. Leadership and the New Science : Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. New York: Berrett-Koehler, Incorporated, 2006.

Graduate School: Three Weeks In

June 3rd, 2008

So I’ve finally begun my masters program.  I have been putting it off and putting it off, and finally now I am ready to start the journey of getting a professional degree.  I am doing a masters program in organizational behavior, which is clearly the only thing I want to study and do now.  The big picture of it is quite exciting, but I must say that being back in “academia” is extremely frustrating.

I feel like “school” makes people want to be more sophisticated and complex than they need to be.  Like to say something in straight and plain English is not as distinguished as citing 4 people and writing sentences overloaded with complicated words.   It’s almost as though the process of learning is more complicated than the things we are learning themselves.

This isn’t true of everything, but I think it’s definitely true of the research papers and some of the articles we read.  It’s so frustrating!  Why don’t we just say exactly what we mean in the simplest way possible?  It’s interesting because you move from academia to the business world, where everything is stripped into black and white slides with the minimum bullet points.  So weird.

No Offense, but You’re Offensive

December 14th, 2007

“No offense” and “none taken” are a common exchange in the US.  People say things all the time that might be taken the wrong way, and usually are able to sense their mistake pretty quickly and say “no offense”.  And more often than not, the response is “none taken.”  And the whole thing ends there.

            This is certainly not the case in India.  In my experience here, people fall into three categories.

1.      The Offender: this is the guy who has no self-awareness and offends everyone constantly with no remorse. The Offender is a difficult personality type to recognize in oneself, but almost everybody knows an offender.    

2.      The Offended:  This is the person who is always, constantly and unendingly offended.  Over what?  Anything and everything.  It takes very little to send this personality type into a fit. 

3.      The Afraid-of-Offending: This is the person who is perpetually afraid that they will say the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time and get caught up in a whirlwind of drama. 

Given the right context I think it is possible to portray all of these behaviors at different times.  Surely all of us have been in each of these positions.  But I also believe that most people fall into one category most of the time and default to this dominant style in new or unfamiliar situations.  For example, suppose you are predisposed to take offense.  If you are invited to someone’s house for the first time you are likely to feel offended by something.  Maybe the host is not dressed well enough to receive you, or the food is not up to your standard, or you were not greeted with enough respect.  If you are looking to be offended, surely you can find something to set you off.

Where does this come from?  One idea is that is comes from the externalization of personal value.  If we expect our sense of self, dignity and personal satisfaction to come from another person, there will be many instances where we are left unfulfilled, and hence the predisposition towards taking offense.  On the flip side, if we understand that people around us need to pampered and made to feel special and important based on our efforts, we will naturally work hard to please and worry that we will be unable to do so- because it is next to impossible to fulfill someone who doesn’t feel whole intrinsically.  And what about the offender?  This is the guy whose sense of self-importance comes from superficial positions or possessions, and so can choose to ignore the feelings of others.  In fact, by flaunting his/her ability to be callous towards others they are able to further strengthen their sense of personal worth.    

Jiddu Krishnamurti the renowned philosopher said “What is important is … to observe what is actually taking place in our daily life, inwardly and outwardly”. To move from the common externalized sense of self to an inner understanding is quite difficult, but results in a much more stable personality – confident and inwardly peaceful.  If we look outwardly for personal recognition we lose all control of our own happiness, and surrender to someone else the ability to make us angry, sad or happy.  Anger directed toward the faults of others, is truly a waste of time, yet it is an easy way to avoid our own.  It doesn’t hurt for each of us to regularly take a hard look at our own actions and think about what makes us truly happy.  Where do we get our sense of personal value?  Wayne Dyer, the self-help guru and best-selling author advises us to live independently of the good will of others.  If no one were around to comment on where you go, what you wear or what you do, will you feel fulfilled?  Would you know what you liked without the approval of others or looking at the price tag?

Personal Vision: Rubber Band Style

September 1st, 2007

Peter Senge’s book the Fifth Discipline has an interesting concept of achieving our personal vision in life.   Imagine a rubber band stretched vertically- the top is the vision, or your goal.  The bottom part is your current reality.  The stretched band in between represents tension.  There are two types of tension - creative (a state of suspended being) and emotional (I’m mad, sad, depressed, excited).

The word emotion comes from the idea of movement.  Emotions force us to move in some direction.

We cannot control our current reality, but have full control of our personal vision, since it’s in our minds and hearts.  So if we are governed by out emotions, we fall prey to the emotional tension.  If you don’t have the emotional maturity to deal with your emotions,  or the band stretching is too uncomfortable for you, you will remove the tension.   Which means you will drop the vision down to meet current reality.  This leads to the compromised state of mediocrity most of us live in.

“Most people’s lives are like the fruit in my fridge.  Not quite good enough to eat, not quite bad enough to throw out.”  - Peter Senge’s friend