How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul”

by Howard Schultz.

“Onward” is a book about Howard Schultz and his deep relationship with the company he founded, Starbucks.  This book focuses on the time in Starbuck’s history when Howard Schultz returned to the CEO position and his experience of being in charge while the company slogged through the latest financial depression in the United States. This book seeks to explain the controversial and life-disrupting decisions the company made when it chose to downsize both in store number and employee number and the leadership and training decisions that were made during this time.

Throughout the book, I had to ask myself one major question:  Is “Onward” a biography about Howard Schultz that focuses primarily on “Howard Schultz’s work-self” or is this a book about the company he is the CEO of, “Starbucks?”

When I read the book through the lens that this was primarily a book about Howard Schultz at work, I loved the book.  I felt pain when Howard Schultz felt pain.  I felt joy when Howard Schultz felt joy.  I was uplifted when Howard Schultz was uplifted and I was made to feel small when Howard Schultz was made to feel small.

Through this lens, this book is an interesting case study in the relationship between a founder and the company that is founded.  He talks about branding, balance, relationships, the pressures associates to being the one who has take responsibility for both the good and the ill, the roles of mentors, what it means to stay the course, and how easy success can be blinding.

What I appreciated most about “Onward” is that it is a book about a never ending process.  Starbuck’s is working to establish what it means to be an ethical company and maintain that ethical status.  Howard Schultz doesn’t see his company as a means to a particular end, but as a company that is striving for ethical sustainability.

My biggest complaint about the book is when Howard Schultz continually explains that he is able to recruit major talent or promote from within primarily through his own “gut feeling”.  He uses psychology and analysis in so many other places in the book, why couldn’t he do that on this topic?

When I read the book as though it is primarily about a company, I experienced discomfort.  Starbucks is a company.  It is not a person.  At the end of the day, in order to survive in a capitalistic society, Starbucks must make money.  This means that Starbucks can provide health benefits to all the part-time employees, but it can also still do what almost all other companies are doing and cap that benefit as starting at 32 hours a week and then save costs by not having employees work that many hours each week.  This means that without the right person sitting at the helm of the company the next time that a Starbucks board member of a financial analyst suggests cutting those benefits to help save costs (which happened more than once in the book), this company may bend to the pressure to do just that.  When read through this lens, the argument could be made that “Starbucks” is too big to fail.

Overall, “Onward” is a quick and enjoyable read.  Whether you enjoy a cup of Starbuck’s coffee or see them as the Goliath of the coffee world, I encourage you to read this book and see how it can influence you to continue “Onward”.