life lately

Global Leadership Conference 2012

At 5:07 am this last Wednesday I was making my way to 32,000 feet, headed south bound for Houston, Texas. The 2012 Starbucks Leadership Conference drew more than 10,000 of us into town for four days of service, learning, networking, team bonding, and corporate gospel.

For the most part the conference was a glorified pep-rally. Yet the planners did a great job of structuring learning and development into the agenda.  The lab, for instance, brought the industry of coffee to life in ways most of us had never experienced. Short of enjoying a trip to origin, the lab brought us closer to the process of growing, the process of blending and roasting, and the process of marketing than anything I can imagine. My knowledge of coffee and tea is relatively extensive – I didn’t advance to my position without it. But up to now my knowledge has largely been theoretical. I’ve read about coffee; I’ve heard stories about coffee; I’ve seen pictures of coffee. This was the first time I got to see rows upon rows of baby coffee trees or dip my hands into a barrel of unroasted coffee beans and take in their aroma. It was my first experience listening for the second pop of the beans as they roasted to perfection or seeing the components of a tea blend separated out, identified, and made available to touch and smell individually. It was cool.

We also got to learn about some of the new things Starbucks is doing – – new products, new partnerships, new strategies for growth. For anyone on the inside, the momentum and movement in the company is already known and felt. In fact, there are often so many things happening on a corporate level, and happening so fast, that we don’t even have advance knowledge. Customers come in with news and information that we haven’t even heard yet. Sometimes it’s work just to keep up-to-date.

On the whole the planners did a fantastic job of coordinating and prepping the logistics of the event. They put us all up in hotels around the city – – I stayed at one of the Marriott locations. They fed us very, very well and were prepared for all sorts of dietary concerns (vegetarian, vegan, even gluten free!). Not only were we served extensive meals three times a day, they set up elaborate snack and beverage bars around the convention center in-between meals with fresh and dried fruit, nuts, popcorn, chips, coffee, tea, water, sodas, refreshers, VIA… One could not starve! The last night was party night and they set up margarita bars, a food truck rodeo (which was really, really fun!), and multiple stages featuring live music from local bands. Transportation, however, proved troublesome and problematic. Because our hotels were scattered across the sprawling city many of us faced 45 minute to an hour commutes (and for anyone familiar with Houston traffic, it goes without saying that sometimes the commute doubled!). As a result, those in my situation had to be ready and boarding the bus by 6 am and couldn’t expect to be “home” until 9, 10, even 11 at night.

We  got an exclusive night at the ball park complete with karaoke, photo-booths, and a night of free-all-you-can-eat ball park food (which I have to say wasn’t my favorite dinner) and were welcomed heartily to Sambuca and the House of Blues.

And a Starbucks convention wouldn’t be complete without a coffee tasting… so we had three! Two in Toyota Center amongst 10,000 other partners and one in the lab from the new verismo machine.

In addition to everything else, each partner had at least 4 hours of community service scheduled during their stay. Collectively we helped build parks, refurbish houses, plant flowers, build and paint birdhouses and wildlife enclosures, assemble hygiene kits for the homeless, write and decorate holiday cards, paint artwork, facilitate a food shelter, and more.

Most of the speeches at the general assemblies were just ra-ra-company but there were a few speeches that were incredibly good and made up for the others we had to bear. Nancy Koehn, a Harvard professor and historian, gave a great speech on leadership through the story of Ernest Shackleton. Even though she has published this story and its message for leaders before, I was honored to hear her speak because she is so animated and funny and just fantastic. Reverend Calvin Butts III gave a sensational speech on what it means to lead in our world today and motivated the crowd to see ourselves as leaders in the world at large, not just in our stores. I was skeptical and quite surprised when he was introduced to the stage. A reverend? I thought. Why is a non-religious company bringing a baptist preacher from Harlem to the stage? Less than a minute in and I was completely overcome. Not only was he engaging and inspirational and funny, his prose was poetic and his message went far beyond anything corporate or coffee related. His speech was powerful, it was political, it was social, it was real. He was really amazing. And, of course, Howard Schultz gave a great speech about social commitment and responsibility. I will say this about the company I work for: I believe Howard Schultz is sincere, genuine, and has a good heart. You see it in his actions, you hear it in his speeches, you read it in his books, and when you talk to him you know. I have my doubts about a lot of the others, from all levels in fact. But at the very top of the pyramid there is an eye for good. {That being said, why he why revered like a rockstar and hounded like a celebrity throughout the entire weekend, I will never understand. What is the obsession with getting a photograph with him or an autograph? I don’t see the point.}

It was no surprise to me that there was a large percentage of the assemblage that was insincere and, well, comprised of jerks. Maya Angelou once said you can tell a lot about a person by the way they handle these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. So true. And, this last week I learned you can tell a lot about a person by the way they handle waiting in line, walking in a crowd, and arriving late to the airport. It was no small irony to me that three days into a conference in which our egos were perpetually rubbed and we were being told over and over again how wonderful and considerate and socially aware we were, that more than 2 people were literally trampled to the ground as others pushed their way through Toyota Center frantically racing for a front row seat so that they could hear more lectures on the virtues of our company and its management team. Yes. Soo considerate we all are. And, of course, how it warmed my spirit to hear managers from across the country cuss out a poor, minimum-wage bus driver for doing his job well and following directions. It’s a longer story than I really want to go into. But, honestly, wtf. The whole message, the whole point of this thing was completely lost on some ’em. But who knows… maybe they’re good at selling coffee.

The most valuable thing that has come from my time in Houston is the enriched relationship I now share with fellow managers in my district. We discovered that despite our deep differences, we have more in common than we’d ever realized and many of us are up against similar frustrations, challenges, and day-to-day crises. Coming home we have a newly enriched support system and empathy for one another.

Despite the propaganda/brainwashing element of it all, I learned more than I’d anticipated and had more fun than expected too, though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy to be home.