Saturday, June 16, 2007

the dip - Seth Godin

Subtitled: A Little Book That Teaches You When To Quit (and When to Stick) One of the many things I love about is how they recommend books to me based on what I've purchased, or perused, in the past. That's one good reason I buy my books there. So this book recommendation actually came to me as an email one evening. Sounds pretty unremarkable up to this point, except it was a few days after I quit my job of five years in a company that I had been affiliated with for most of the last 20 years. I saw it as a "sign." And now that I've read the book, I'm even more convinced that some cosmic force out there was sending me a well timed message about the virtues - yes I said virtues - of quitting.

Culturally, quitters are not held in high esteem. It comes back to the old Vince Lombardi axiom about "Winners never quit, and quitters never win." It's a valid point, but he left out an important bit of information. A footnote about making certain you are pursuing something worthwhile. The Heath brothers (Made to Stick) would call this a "knowledge gap." Coach Lombardi presumed that we universally understand that not all things we pursue are created equally - that not everything we do is worthy of our time, talent and passion. He was talking about not quitting at those things we decide are worth winning. That's what this book is about.

Seth Godin is an accomplished writer and he hits his target again with a much needed work on why quitters do in fact win. It's important to evaluate what the long term benefits are of what we do, versus the short term pain of working through a "dip." Dips actually create value by eliminating competitors who don't stay the course to make it to the upside. Work through a dip, and you are on your way to being "the best in the world."

Cul-de-Sacs (French for "dead end") are another matter entirely. Staying the course is not going to bring us out on any upside. We get stuck in a place where we cannot move forward. As Godin points out, coping and muddling through, rationalizing a decision to stay in a cul-de-sac leads to mediocrity. That so struck a chord with me. He writes: "The next time you catch yourself being average when you feel like quitting, realize that you have only two good choices: Quit or be exceptional. Average is for losers."

I have always had a reputation for being persistent, and creative, and for working hard at what I do. There was never a shortage of passion or belief in the value of what I did every day, or in the company that I worked for. But at some point, I realized that it was a dead end. Godin points out, "Persistent people are able to visualize the idea of light at the end of the tunnel when others can't see it. At the same time, the smartest people are realistic about not imagining light when there isn't any." And that's when it's time to quit that pursuit, and pour your energy into one worth pursuing. Coach Lombardi was talking about working through a dip, not floundering in a cul-de-sac, or going off a cliff.

This is a great little book. A very quick read and just the right investment of a Saturday afternoon that probably should have been spent pruning shrubs. The shrubs will be there tomorrow. I highly recommend this book. Godin has added his trademark uniqueness to the very last pages with his personal "best in the world" list, and a page that allows you to pass this book along to someone else who can pass it along to someone else, with everyone jotting their name on the list of those who have read it and passed it along. I love his Purple Cow thinking which is one of the reasons that Seth Godin is one of the best authors in the world!

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Starbucks Experience - Joseph Michelli

Subtitled: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary. What a great read! I'm not even sure where to start. I was hooked from the first page to the last, and there are post-it flags in every chapter. Starbucks is a phenomenon. On that I think we can all agree. But they may well have created core business practices that could be a blueprint for companies in many other industries as well.

For those who love numbers, the numbers are impressive. The value of Starbucks has grown 5,000% since 1992. They have over 100,000 employees worldwide in over 37 countries, and their employees report an 82% job satisfaction rate. Starbucks opens five new stores a day, 365 days a year. Their employees who work 20 hours a week or more are entitled to health insurance.

None of that should be a surprise really. What is surprising is how this company set out to create a win-win-win for everyone whose world they touch. Corporately, they are committed to the well being and care of their employees (called "partners"), their partners are trained to focus on delivering the best possible experience (along with the coffee) to their customers. Starbucks gives to each local community in which they do business through their own charitable foundation and from the many volunteer hours their partners put into community based projects. They are committed to Fair Trade Certified coffee. They have a C.A.F.E. program that encourages the growers they do business with to work on sustaining their farming long term through good agricultural practices and taking care of their own people right down to the coffee pickers. They have a senior vice president of Corporate Social Responsibility. How many companies have that on their org chart?

The book is just completely engaging. Probably more so if you actually go to Starbucks, which I do. I don't have one particular Starbucks I frequent on a regular basis, although part of their business model is that they are part of many people's daily routine and provide a "third place." In other words, people go to work, they go home, and they go to Starbucks. I'm not quite that committed to the product, but I consider it a treat to myself to spend that kind of money on a cup of coffee, and I'm generally never disappointed - not in the product or the experience that is delivered along with it. More and more, it's a great "experience" that people are looking for in their transactions with companies they've chosen to do business with. Starbucks has come up with a method to train their employees to deliver a consistently outstanding product along with a highly personalized and genuine experience to their customers. This is certainly not beyond the reach of other businesses - no matter what the industry.

I truly believe the principles they have developed in making Starbucks such a phenomenal success can be applied to any business. Perhaps not in exactly the same way, but the principles are fairly basic. At the very least, after reading the book you will notice a whole lot more the next time you go into a Starbucks. I'm in Georgia at the moment and for the last two mornings have gone to Starbucks for coffee at a store that opened only a month ago. Watching the baristas and partners take my order, handle the drive-thru window, and interact with the other customers in the store has taken on a great deal of interest to me. It is a bit different from my experience with stores in Northern Virginia, but all my experiences have been consistently good ones no matter what Starbucks I've stopped in. And that is the true magic behind the business they have created - consistent quality with a personal touch. This book is well worth the time invested and should be required reading for all CEOs and corporate management. I would love to work for an organization like this one, and I'm sure I'm only one of thousands who feel the same way.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Setting the Table - Danny Meyer

Subtitled The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business. I first knew about Danny Meyer from Bo Burlingham's book Small Giants (reviewed here in March 2006.) He was profiled as one of those entrepreneurs who had made the decision to control the growth of his business in order to maintain the true integrity, culture and value of the company he started. Shortly after that, Meyer was profiled in FastCompany Magazine just as his book was hitting the shelves in 2006.

Unfortunately for me, I have never set foot in any of the ten restaurants that Meyer has established in New York City, but feel as if I know him and his restaurants intimately after reading this book. The book is just such an enjoyable read, truly one of the most interesting and engaging business books ever! I could happily read it all over again - it's just that good. It's part autobiography, part coming of age story, with a great deal of story telling and shared wisdom from his mentors thrown in for good measure. His writing style is so very warm and personal, that it's easy to see how he has created restaurants that have exactly that same feel. And of course, that's the whole point of the book. Businesses can use the basic principles of hospitality throughout their organizations, internally and externally, to create an environment where employees thrive and consumers want to maintain their relationship.

I've got post flags stuck all over this book! One of my favorite concepts, and one I will carry with me always, is what he calls "The 51 Percent Solution." It's basically the idea that you can teach someone almost any skill necessary to do their job, you can't teach them to care about doing their job well. You have to hire for that. So his equation is that you hire based on 49 percent skill set, and 51 percent emotional intelligence. He put it like this: "It's not hard to teach anyone the proper way to set a beautiful table. What is impossible to teach is how to care deeply about setting the table beautifully." Not a hard concept to grasp: you hire for character - which is the one thing you can't teach someone. But how many of us try to grasp character traits from a resume or an interview? Is it even possible to do that? I believe absolutely that he has got this right, but it is a way of looking at employee hiring and management that is outside the mainstream.

There are so many wonderful analogies he uses, and the stories he tells are so absorbing I sometimes felt like I was reading a novel. His chapter on leadership, entitled "Constant, Gentle Pressure" is just excellent. He tells how one of his unlikely mentors, Pat Cetta who was himself an veteran restaurateur in NYC, gave him the example of a salt shaker in the center of an otherwise empty table. He explained that every day his employees and guests were going to move that salt shaker off the center of the table, and it was up to him as the leader to keep moving it back to the center. His center. That it was his job to let his people know what excellence looks like to him and what the core value of the business is. And so through a system of what he has termed constant, gentle pressure, Meyer learned to maintain the high standards of his business by continually leading his managers and employees back to the core values of the company. I thought that was a brilliant explanation of a basic leadership fundamental.

The whole book is like that. I have quoted parts of it in two different newsletter editions I put out earlier this year. If you are looking for something to take to the beach that isn't total fluff but is still thoroughly enjoyable, this book would be the one. I could happily start reading it all over again.