When “Sorry, I left the lens cap on” just won’t do.
Filming the Super Bowl and managing your own top talent culture.
Complacency doesn’t just affect employee cultures that are less than competent; it breeds in employee cultures that are extremely competent. Such cultures know they’re the best. They are confident of success, enjoy the regular autonomy they have earned, and are entitled to all the material rewards they receive.
If you manage a culture where there is no learning curve or multiple levels of expertise–people already have to be extraordinarily competent to even do the job–how then do you keep them committed and increase that commitment?
This is a problem I addressed as one chapter in my book Under the Hood: Fire Up and Fine Tune Your Employee Culture. In that chapter I also profiled four examples of organizations that required exclusively top talent as a baseline requirement. One of them is the film crew for the Super Bowl. Here’s the exclusive interview with Super Bowl broadcast director Mike Arnold.
THE NUMBERS THAT MATTER
“Camera 10, back up with the throw. Camera 22, stay with the man in motion. Camera 8, you’ve got this guy, follow him. Camera 15, I need you on coach reaction.”
“I’m talking nonstop for three hours,” says Emmy Award–winner Mike Arnold, lead game director for the NFL on CBS and the director of the Super Bowl. During those three hours, other numbers are talking too: Over 108 million viewers, justifying ad costs of $4 million for 30 seconds and igniting Internet gambling of over $93 million.
Mike Arnold isn’t paying attention to any of those numbers. He is focused on 50. That’s the number of television screens in the eighteen-wheel semi-trailer parked outside the stadium. Inside the trailer, Mike is watching those screens intensely, directing editors, graphics, tape teams, and the camera teams on the field, all of whom are tracking the game as fast as it happens. He is making split-second coverage calls about which picture is going out on the air, live, to 180 countries.
Live. One hundred and eight million people. One hundred and eighty countries. Zero margin for error. This kind of make-it-or-break-it pressure would cause many managers to scream at their people—or to run shrieking for the hills. Not this guy: He’s got the standing heart rate of an iguana.
A BUNCH OF SUPERSTARS WHO NEVER GET THE BALL
A lot of his equanimity has to do with the quality of the team. The rest of it has to do with what little getting upset would accomplish. “They’re all professionals,” he tells me. “I use my own core team of twenty-five, and I cherry-pick the best of the rest. Everyone has been working football all year, so they intuitively understand the rhythm of the game. It’s an honor to work the Super Bowl, and everyone knows it. Everybody wants to do their best.”
“But even superstars need pumping up,” I say. “That’s true,” he agrees, “but I don’t do a lot of rah-rah before the game. I do tell them, ‘Hey, you never know what will be the moment that everybody remembers from this Super Bowl. You could be the cameraman who has that or the tape guy who has the replay. If people remember it, they’re going to remember it for a long time.’ Then counter the pressure by reminding them that once the kickoff happens, it’s the same eleven players on eleven players, and they’ve all done this before.
“The game is going to be the game,” he says. “We can only anticipate so much, and that’s what makes it so exciting to watch. Sure, we can miss a key shot, but to get on my guys for it won’t help and may not be fair. Remember, it’s the quarterback’s job to fake everyone out. I stay positive and supportive. If my guy misses a play, I’m not happy about it, and I may yell instructions, but I’m not yelling at my guy. What’s the point of reprimanding someone in the middle of the action? I need them to focus on the game.”
“Since a percentage of your employee culture is new, how do you rehearse?” I ask. “We don’t just show up on Sunday to cover the game,” he responds. “We watch a lot of films, visit the teams, and hold camera meetings. And then a week before, we bring a high school team into the actual stadium and have them run plays we think are going to happen in the big game, so we can block out camera angles.” “A high school team?” I ask. “Of course, NFL players are a lot faster,” Mike adds. Well . . . yeah.
THE GAME IS ON, THE LIGHTS ARE OFF
“One of the things we do drill for is if someone runs onto the field,” he offers. “Then we have a combustible situation that may be entertaining to some but might also be dangerous.” One of the things that Mike and his team never drilled for is what would happen if someone ran onto the field but they couldn’t tell because nobody could even see the field: the midgame loss of power in Super Bowl 2013.
“That was just surreal,” he says. “Our cameras are shooting up in the lights and suddenly they lose the lights. Hey, what happened? When the lights went, we lost all of that power that went to the lights, which goes to a lot of our cameras, so we lost a bunch of cameras. We lost communications with our announcers in the booth, so they couldn’t hear us. We were just flying blind, but we didn’t panic. It was a fast team response: How do we get the cameras back? How do we fill the air with whatever we can?”
I venture that filming the Super Bowl must be akin to a tightrope walker who wisely doesn’t look down until it’s over. “This is just what we do,” he says, all iguanish. “You know what I’m amazed at? When you go to a restaurant with eight people and your waiter takes an order and doesn’t write anything down. Then he brings it out, and it’s right. How do they do that?”
Excerpted from Under the Hood: Fire Up and Fine-Tune Your Culture by Stan Slap. © 2015 Penguin/Random House, New York
Join the SLAP List
Signing up is free.
Getting off is gonna cost you.
When wrong is the best way to right.
In the name of hyper-innovation, growth, and ROI/C metrics the enterprise has a never-ending demand for competence from its manager and employee cultures. Could anything be missing in the constant push for topnotch expertise in execution, strategic prowess, product breakthroughs, marketing creativity and other dance moves that allow a company to keep nimbly ahead of its competition and satisfy the many judges of its performance?
Yes, it could. And because irony never sleeps, the path to competence lies in part in embracing incompetence.
I’m not talking about incompetence as an acceptable substitute for competence, or as a relaxation of standards, or as advocating carelessness in managing the business. I’m talking about supporting temporary incompetence in the effort to create something new or master it at a new level. About admiring the elegance of fumbling toward achievement as much as the achievement itself.
It’s not easy to do. The last thing anyone under pressure is going to chance is the counter-intuitive move. Companies and their cultures tend to go with what works even if they know it likely won’t work. There is a race from mistakes toward the next possible victory, skipping the deep post-mortems, and focusing on effect over cause. There’s enough time to place blame but not enough to savor the well intentioned attempt. We shiver when incompetence happens to us and shun others when it happens to them.
Incompetence is a pejorative term in most organizational environments, and a dangerous one at that. “Everyone rises to their level of incompetence,” Laurence J. Peter famously said in The Peter Principle. But before him, Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” After him, Zen guru Shunryo Suzuki said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
FOUR THINGS YOU CAN DO RIGHT NOW,
PLUS ONE PERSONAL EXAMPLE.
- FIND SOMETHING YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT AND ATTEMPT TO MASTER IT
Return to something that has defeated or intimidated you before. Do it yourself and if you manage a team, do it together.
- STUDY THE INCOMPETENCE OF THE ACCOMPLISHED
Ignore the successes of very accomplished people but study how they dealt with their incompetence getting there and what it taught them that led to enormous success.
- RAISE THE BAR ON WHAT IT MEANS TO BE COMPETENT
Allow yourself and others to act incompetently about certain agreed upon things, like part of a project or goal strategy. Note that this is different than allowing them to be incompetent and that failure is not the same thing as incompetence.
- IF IT’S STILL TOO RISKY ON THE JOB, TRY IT AT HOME
I offer you this example of my own blazing incompetence, to which I am drawn like a moth:
I play the tenor saxophone. Well, I say I play; my wife Diane says I have a saxophone. I’m busy and constantly traveling so can’t practice the way I should. After all the years spent with this instrument I can now play any song ever written – just not intentionally and not twice. I begin to tune up, neighborhood dogs begin to howl and my own gentle Labrador retriever frantically scrambles under the bed, refusing to touch wet food for the next 24 hours.
I really like guitars, have a mighty fine personal collection, and keep a 1957 Les Paul and Marshall half-stack in the lobby of my company’s offices for anyone who is working or visiting and wants to play. Yet I’ve always been drawn to the saxophone. I revere all legends of jazz but this is mostly because of Charlie Parker. His remarkable natural prowess and dauntless vision earned him a reputation as the best alto saxophone player in jazz history, and one of the founding fathers of modern music. If you play music or like music, or maybe have just heard of music, I urge you to listen to him.
I love Parker’s deconstruction and reconstruction of the established mathematics of his field, his unrelenting passionate pursuit of the new, and the profound humanity that infuses his playing. It’s the same way I like to approach what I do in my own company, which is closed on Charlie Parker’s birthday every year as a paid employee holiday.
Where Parker could see entirely new patterns and possibilities in the mist, I see…the saxophone. It’s sitting on the couch in my office as I write this. Completely mocking me. Still, I continue to listen and learn and play whenever I can, recognizing that I’ll never, ever approach the intuitive genius or even basic dexterity of my idol.
And maybe that’s why I dig it. Like so many of you, I have accomplishment as a key personal value, and so badger myself constantly with a never-good-enough mantra. But really, that’s just your basic over achiever nuttiness. In reality, my company’s solutions have been carefully constructed, exhaustively tested and are constantly refined. I surround myself with a team that includes PhD’s and other experts in the disciplines we provide, and my books have been written with superb research teams.
Without being an arrogant snot, I am confident about our competence around here. While each client assignment is new and never taken for granted, what we are going to do for a company we’ve done successfully many times before. These days we are intent on repeating success, not on creating it for the first time. That’s what scaling a business is all about.
Confronting this stubborn brass instrument means attempting an entirely new competency and dealing with the impatience, the setbacks and victories, and the determination that goes along with it. It’s a new source of energy, which helps fuel the energy I bring to my business.
It reminds me of how competency happens in the first place. It reminds me that anything great began as something fearless. And it reminds me never to take the journey to real competency for granted, in anyone. Well, I say the saxophone is an instrument. Diane says in my hands it’s more of a weapon.
TALK TO ME: What are you incompetent in and what has that taught you? Does your company correctly value incompetence and what are examples of the payoff if it does?
Stan Slap is the CEO of SLAP, the international consulting company renowned for achieving maximum commitment in manager, employee and customer cultures – the three groups that decide the success of your company. He is the New York Times bestselling author of Bury My Heart at Conference Room B and Under the Hood. slapcompany.wpengine.com
Sgt. Pepper’s is having its 50th anniversary this year, with a super deluxe reissue version released today. Although Lennon was responsible for the two best songs, the album was McCartney’s concept and he wrote or co-wrote nine of the thirteen tracks. He’s the only surviving serious spokesperson for this seminal work and there’s going to be a lot of press about Paul.
There’s not going to be a lot press about what it’s like to work for Paul. He never talks about that and neither do members of his employee culture.
As part of my book, Under the Hood, which is about how an employee culture really works and how to gain its maximum commitment, I wanted to answer how you influence and inspire an employee culture that already has to be expert at its job or the job couldn’t even get done. Amongst intimate book interviews with the director of the Super Bowl film crew, ex-Muppet master and film director Frank Oz, and the CEO of CNN about the major stress of his reporters trying to capture a story in the middle of a war zone, I spent a lot of time with guitarist Brian Ray. Brian has been a member of Paul McCartney’s band for fifteen years, which is five years longer than Paul’s first band was even around.
Included here is an excerpt from that Under the Hood interview. But first, let’s summarize what Paul McCartney would say to you about how to lead your own employee culture to greatness:
- You will never create passion in others unless you start with it yourself. If your only passion is to make money, the cost of that money will always prove more expensive and difficult than it needs to be: your customer isn’t infatuated with your revenue concerns. Your passion has to start with loving the craft of what you do and what it does for others.
- If you hire the best and expect the best, you had better be the best yourself. Be the constant, restless, forward motion example of the standard that you expect your culture to follow.
- Management controls performance in an employee culture because it impacts skill; it’s a matter of monitoring, analyzing, and directing. If you want to improve the skill of your culture, you should definitely manage it. Leadership won’t control anything. Leadership, which is a matter of modeling, inspiring, and reinforcing, creates performance in an employee culture because it impacts willingness.
The relative quality of performance from your employee culture probably has little to do with its skill. Those in the culture already know how to do their jobs—you hired them because they had that basic capability, and once they get an orientation to your products and procedures, they’re skilled. From that point on, the quality and quantity of your employee culture’s performance depends on its willingness to use that skill to the utmost, regardless of whether you’re hovering over it like a supervisory gargoyle.
If you’re trying to get more skill from already skilled people, you’re pushing a dead button. This makes leadership more important than management: How can you control what you haven’t first created?
- Put as little as possible between you and your customer, no matter whether or not your work is directly customer facing. The magic moment where company and customer unite is the essence and soul of your business; don’t ever let your culture think anything else is a substitute. It’s that connection, that impact, that makes the work profound.
And now, from Under the Hood:
A ROCK AND ROLL ICON TAKES THE STAGE
Tennessee, 7:55 p.m. on a steamy, sticky Southern night. It is the darkened main stage at Bonaroo, one of the largest music festivals in America. Over 100,000 people shift, stretch, and paw the ground expectantly in front of them. They have come to experience the music of a generation, of every generation most of them can recall.
Behind the stage is another crowd, this one numbering about 150. For most of them, work done, it is time for a last mental review of their careful preparations throughout the day. For some of them, it is time to take positions for the night that is about to begin. This is the employee culture—road crew and band—that works for Paul McCartney.
Only the best are hired to work with Paul, and it’s a dream job. Well, there is this one nightmarish possibility: If something goes wrong in front of those 100,000 people, every one of them will recognize it. Instantly. They know every note and every word of every song as well as the people playing them do.
“Anything can happen,” Paul’s longtime rhythm and bass guitarist Brian Ray tells me. “Paul likes to rock. We are not playing to Pro Tools, pre-taped material, or time references. We’re not tethered to anything but each other up there. We’re on natural monitors, speakers and boxes on the ground just like the old days.
“We are sharing a live musical experience like real musicians have always done, and it requires you to have visual and audio connection with each other,” he explains. “It is an immediate, vital music experience for Paul’s band. And it’s not just us; we carry a regular road crew of about one hundred people, but we add fifty or sixty new crew members for each show—there are construction, security, lighting, video, riggers, sound engineers, guitar technicians, just so many elements. Our crew can make or break the course of a show at any minute within it.”
“Once the show starts, our guitars are handed to us by human beings who are on the side of the stage tuning them, and there are a lot of strings, switches, and batteries that could go bad and change the show,” Brian continues. “It’s very real.”
“How real is very real?” I ask.
“Well, on this tour we played Glasgow,” he says. “I’ve been starting the show alone on a twelve-string, just me on stage before the band kicks in and Paul comes out. A battery had fallen out of the guitar being delivered to me, which nobody realized. I’m on the stage in front of 40,000 people, it’s the first song, and there’s absolutely no sound. We’re trying to figure out what could have gone wrong, trying this and that.
Paul’s just standing there looking at me, and I’m whispering to my guitar tech, ‘Get me an electric guitar now ¬¬– I need to start the show!”
“But that was one of sixty times we’ve performed that first song, and the only time something went wrong.”
Listen to What the Man Says
“How do we all experience Paul? He is a great leader and a great boss. He wants the best out of people and he really gets it. Not because he’s a tyrant in any way, because he certainly isn’t, but because he stays on it. He throws down every time we play. He’s going to step on the gas and reach deep every night, because he loves music and because he came from the clubs. That’s still who he is.”
“How much is he in control of the concert experience?” I ask. “Everyone is aware that Paul is aware of every aspect of the show,” Brian insists. “He’s still driven, still that guy who’s the best in Liverpool. He still wants to do mind-blowing work. He wants to impress. He still loves seeing the lighters in the air. He doesn’t see his music as a museum piece; he wants it to be a living, breathing, vital thing. In concert, he just goes out there and performs like a human being who loves music, not like an idol who loves fame.
“And that example inspires all of us to do the same,” he explains. “Everybody wants to be part of this . . . every single department backstage and onstage is making the eyeball shine on top of the pyramid. That thing at the top is Paul. We are there to help him put over his vision every night.”
Good Day Sunshine
McCartney is renowned for being financially generous to his band and crew, but Brian doesn’t want to talk about that; he wants to talk about this: “Paul is maybe the least cynical man on the planet. And the ones who share that worldview are the ones that stay with us the longest. It’s a trickle-down thing. By his essence, I think Paul attracts people who carry that same sort of ethos of quality and of service to an audience and to music. That spirit. Everybody in the crew and everybody in the band pushes forward with that same sort of love of humanity and hope for a future.”
He pauses and then says quietly, “He has made me a better musician, and he has made me a better human being.”
I should leave it there, but I can’t. Paul McCartney is Brian’s boss. Brian’s job is to play Beatles songs to huge, cheering audiences. “Let’s get tactical.” I suggest. “How does one ace a job interview with Paul McCartney?”
“Sure, okay, let me explain,” he says. “In 2002, Paul had hired a producer, David Kahne, who has also produced a basketful of number one records in his great career. He’s the guy who had the vision to put together Paul’s band. They had chosen the drummer, Abe Laboriel Jr., who is a buddy of mine, and he gave David my number. I didn’t even have a cell phone, but I happened to be at home on Monday when the call came through to audition with Paul.
“I first met Paul the night before the audition, and it was as simple as, ‘I want to make a toast to my friends here with me tonight at this dinner. I want to welcome my older friends, and I want to welcome our new friends, David Kahne and Brian Ray.’ And the next day I played my first gig with him, although it was only one song.”
“Well, that couldn’t have been too hard,” I say. “What was the gig?”
“The Super Bowl.”
He adds, “The day after the show I was ready to say good-bye, and thank you, and it was a privilege, and I’ll never forget it. Paul said, ‘Welcome aboard. Stick with Abe and Rusty. They’ll show you the ropes. I’ll see you at rehearsal for the tour in five weeks.’ And that was that.”
“Well, that helps,” I mutter.
“Great, man!” Brian says.
Stan Slap wrote the New York Times and Wall St. Journal bestselling books about business culture. He is also the CEO of SLAP, the international consulting company specializing in achieving maximum commitment from manager, employee and customer cultures – the three groups that are deciding the success of your business while you read this sentence.
View on Amazon
"Culture," Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year in 2014, is one of the most overused and least understood terms in the tech industry.
As solution providers grapple with an epochal shift to the cloud -- with many aiming to transition toward a strategic service provider model -- they're coming to the realization that to successfully pivot their business models, they first need to get a handle on their company culture.
Understanding the culture is how a company earns buy-in from its employees and managers, which is necessary for them to make the right decisions affecting strategy, said Adrian Jones, president and chief operating officer at SLAP Company, a business management consultancy.
"Our objective is to help partners really understand what's going on inside their companies, with their employee base, their managers, and their customers, to understand how to make the right decisions as they transition to the cloud," Jones told IT Best of Breed.
"We believe that if you understand the culture, and what's happening, you know how to put the right strategies in place to drive the right business model."
That cultural mastery yields improvements in productivity, revenue, and employee-manager relations, he said.
SLAP, founded by business management guru Stan Slap, has been around for decades. The company nurtured a technology presence, advising Google and Facebook.
Read Full Article on IT Best of Breed >>
To book a time with Stan Slap at the XChange Partner Event in Los Angeles, please fill out this form and I will contact you with more information right away. Thank you,
“Some people live and learn. Never was lucky that way,” once sang Boz Scaggs.
If you tremble at the thought of starting another year repeating ineffective business strategies –– or that your management career has somehow turned into a Boz Scaggs song –– here are five critical things that you can do to ensure success.
1. UNDERSTAND HOW A CULTURE WORKS AND HOW TO WORK IT
Way back in 2014, “culture” was Miriam-Webster’s Word of the Year, making it the most searched for word in the English language according the most popular dictionary in the English language. If the Word of the Year had been “banana,” by now companies would understand what a banana really is, how to get the most out of it and that it’s not likely to peel itself to feed you.
An employee culture isn’t a bunch of employees. When your employees formed a relationship with your company they became a culture, and became far more intelligent, far more self-protective and far more resistant to standard methods of corporate influence. This isn’t soft stuff; it is the stuff of hardcore business results.
Your culture will give you anything you want but you have to give it what it wants first. It’s not the responsibility of your employee culture to understand the business logic; it’s the responsibility of your business to understand the culture’s logic. Any company – and manager – that gets this will be unbeatable in any market they choose to own.
2. BECOME BRANDED FOR HOW YOU SELL
There is more mythology, misdirection, superstition and generalized academic babble about branding than most business subjects. Let’s cut to the bottom line: Becoming a brand means transferring sustainability of your company to your customers. Customers will advertise and sell for you, and protect you when you stumble or get attacked. This makes it the most important transformation for any company.
Being a brand isn’t about being big, or Siberia would be a brand. It’s about being best, which turns into big. So it’s not just about what you sell; it’s about how you sell it and why. Whatever claims you make about your product have to be overtly represented in the process someone goes through to buy and use the product, or you have fractured trust with customers and caused suspicion about your product claims. Your customer experience has to be spectacular, signature and sustained to be brandable.
And it has to be driven by real passion – a sure sense of what is right with the world that must be protected and wrong with the world that must be corrected. Regardless of your value proposition the business has to be operated at least in part as a delivery vehicle to build a better world. If your only passion is to make money the cost of that money will prove more expensive and difficult than it needs to be. Your customers aren’t infatuated with your revenue concerns. But stand for something deep and you’ll not only rule the world, people will want you to.
3. BRING YOUR OWN VALUES TO WORK
Your personal values are your very own source of safety, hope and renewal. Why should you live your personal values at work? This is an excellent question to ask – if your attorneys are planning an insanity defense. You spend over half your waking hours at work. Work-life balance isn’t a matter of escaping from work; it’s a matter of living the way you want to, whether or not you’re at work. The source of your emotional commitment to your company – worth more than your financial, intellectual and physical commitment combined – is based on your ability to actually live your own values on the job.
You can live your deepest personal values at work. A company will buy any reasonable manager action that produces business results. Those companies that are most intense about performance become the most maternal and squishy about those who deliver it. The key to getting enterprise sanction for living your own values is to be able to tell a new story of results because you did.
4. STAY ON THE SOLUTION SIDE
“Whining is not a strategy.” “Victim” is not a job description. “Everybody else is in trouble too” is not management information.
The best organizations hold themselves as accountable for their problems as they do for their successes. Their victories are built upon learning from both and growing ever stronger. Once your culture is allowed to blame external conditions for internal performance, all hope of aggressive and creative responses departs and helplessness and cynicism take their place.
There are two things to know about any tough time your business may be experiencing: First, it probably won’t last forever. Second, the story of how you stood up to it will. You’re going to be living with that story for a long time: write it so it ends the way you want it to. Want to know more? Write me at [email protected] and ask for the free white paper Tough Times: Tougher Teams.
5. LOOK FORWARD BY LOOKING BACKWARDS
What do you want from your management career? Do you want to build a company, sell products, make money? These are very good things. Do you want to have a legacy impact on the lives of those who helped you do it? This is a great thing.
You don’t have to trade off the good things for a great thing. But you have to want to do a great thing.
Knowing how your employee culture works and how to work it can be the pivotal difference between your career success and failure, or between your success and extreme success. But this isn’t simply about your company or your career.
Culture is where the humans gather in business. It is up to you if you treat what is most important to these humans with disinterest and depress their sense of who they are and what they deserve. Or if you treat them with the honor that humans have earned regardless of most criteria, certainly regardless of their position in the hierarchy of an enterprise, and lift their sense of who they are and what they deserve.
An employee culture’s profound search for safety and meaning is a reminder that we all inhabit the same world; we all have these same concerns. Treating your employee culture with empathy, concern, and respect is not a performance tactic or a job responsibility. It is a mirror that reflects your own true humanity.
Listen, there’s only so much I can tell you in a blog. But my company really does all of this work for many of the world’s most successful, demanding organizations and I’ve written several books about it. If you want to know more, formally or just informally, just reach out: [email protected] Happy to help.
This is not soft stuff. This is the stuff of hardcore results. The companies that bring us in to do this work either to build a brandable customer experience or transform and protect their employee and manager cultures. We like to say they don’t have patience as a value, they are high demand organizations. They have gone through the times of making managers millionaires just by virtue of them showing up and fogging up a mirror they still became day traders with their own career. There has to be something else. There is something that is worth more than financial intellectual and physical commitment and that’s emotional commitment. The opposite of emotional is not irrational the opposite of emotional is detached. There isn’t a strategy or performance goal that is weight bearing if its placed on a platform of detached culture.
Let’s assume for a minute that the folks running Starbucks are real people who are provoked enough by a social issue to use their large stage to talk about it. Can a company ever do so in a way that is considered credible and appropriate by its customers? This is a concern needing resolution by any company that believes its obligation to give back extends beyond shareholders to the world.
Starbucks can be pounced on for some cringe worthy clumsiness in introducing its Race Together campaign, but not for the motive behind it. This is a company with a retail presence in all 50 states of a country that is polarized and stoked about racial bias – people are divided, angry and frightened. In the face of this, Starbucks has offered the exact opposite: The company has presented a united front to promote healing, which is a fearless move considering the blowback it knew it was inviting.
We can be cynical as consumers but we can’t have it both ways. Do we want companies to operate with a greater social conscience or not? To think that this was some smarmily conceived publicity stunt is just absurd (iPad giveaway? Nah, been done. Wait a minute – let’s use Ferguson!) There are far easier ways for Starbucks to get its name in the press than wading into the issue of racism in America.
The company has a track record of some laudable practices in the treatment of its supply chain, its employee culture and in its respect for humans of all kinds. When a shareholder group announced a boycott in protest of the company’s support for Washington State’s gay marriage referendum, CEO Shultz blasted back, “Not every decision is an economic decision. The lens in which we are making that decision is through the lens of our people. We employ over 200,000 people in this company, and we want to embrace diversity. If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38% you got last year…you can sell your shares in Starbucks and buy shares in another company.”
This is the organization people want to get all worked up against? Man, try the decaf. The company’s senior most passion around this seems real and even if it really should do better in improving the percentage of minorities that make up its own executive team, Starbucks deserves credit and support for being willing to take a stand on something beyond new products and pricing.
Will that stand noticeably impact the state of racial equality in the United States? Hardly, but it’s tough to know what will at this point. It’s unfair to lay the accountability on them – they’re a coffee company, not the DOJ, and their legislative authority is limited to what kind of muffins you get to choose from. True, it may only be dialogue that Starbucks is inciting when it’s so clearly the time for action. But saying something is better than saying nothing. Let’s listen now to all of the other companies who have used their position of influence to speak about this urgent issue affecting us all:
A lesson here for other companies is not to use your employee culture as involuntary brand evangelists or apologists. A brand says “you will know us by our intention” and it is up to the culture whether it wants to represent that intention with its own good name, not up to the company to decide for the culture or to assume that it comes with the job description.
The forced involvement of the Starbucks employee culture was equally uncomfortable for customers. Those customers are employees somewhere too and so part of the overall employee culture. They’ll decide to protect or reject a company depending on how they perceive it treats people like them. The company should have relied solely on in-store collateral designed to instigate natural conversation across the counter if both parties are so inclined.
But is the lesson that Starbucks has provided solely a cautionary tale for other companies? We had better hope not because we will be reinforcing the hesitancy of organizational power and wealth to advocate for social change. Maybe most of that advocacy will be patently false and self-serving but if we don’t endorse fumbling first attempts the real ones will never step up. Let’s make these the lessons instead:
1. Be relevant to be valuable.
Old business thinking says that the better your value proposition the more successful you’ll be. In our time of massive customer buying choices and forums for customer–to–customer communication, going to market on value alone risks commoditizing your product. The companies that will be the most successful will provide both value and relevance.
Most companies only choose to be relevant to their customers when they’re trying to sell them something. There’s a lot going on in your customer’s world and that means you’re choosing to be irrelevant to them for most of the time.
2. Drive your business from passion to get to profit.
The companies that become brands conceive of their business in part as a delivery vehicle to build a better world and this gives them a purpose that is credible, consistent and charismatic. If your company’s only passion is to make money the cost of that money will always prove more expensive and difficult than it needs to be. Your customer isn’t infatuated with your revenue concerns.
3. Don’t talk like a company to human beings.
A lot of the negative response to Starbucks comes from the gimmicky aspects of this campaign. To be credible enterprise passion has to be unadulterated – raw and unapologetic, without pulling any punches or putting an obvious marketing or self-serving enterprise spin on it.
If it exists at all most companies take their true human passion and put it through a transmorgifier that sucks it out, flattens the resulting indistinguishable blob into something palatable to every demographic and psychographic profile, bakes it under high commercial pressure until the original soulful intent is completely faded, puts a professional agency glaze on it and then attempts to force feed the result to a skeptical customer culture. Yum.
Ironically this doesn’t make a company’s position safer. It makes it riskier because it isn’t believable. People don’t trust companies; they trust people. If you want your message to be listened to, trusted and shared then you have to talk to those people like they really talk to themselves. This means you have to have enough respect for your customer culture to believe it will find comfort in your authenticity and transparency even if it doesn’t always agree with your point of view.
Whether you agree or disagree with their approach or even their position, it is inarguable that Starbucks is attempting here to bring humanity into its business. If we lose humanity in business, we’re all doomed. If we save it, we will have saved ourselves.
I’m so sick of musicians and their wretched excesses. Wretched healthy excesses, I mean. The more any great artist improves their personal condition, the more their professional work tumbles in bland decline. It never fails: They get their crap together and their music goes into the toilet.
Who could deny that their emotional vulnerability, inappropriate rage, distorted perspective, egomaniacal point of view and chronic inability to manage even the simplest aspects of their lives in any rational manner... has produced some great music
Eric Clapton was on fire when he was on heroin. Bob Dylan’s greatest writing occurred when he was neurotic and reclusive. Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Bon Scott, Kurt Cobain and Jerry Garcia never got it together and their music will live forever even if they clearly won’t. Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Billie Holiday were either wrecks or recovering wrecks throughout their careers and their music stayed real and deep. It’s as capable of divinely transporting us at Starbucks today as when it was originally recorded in a painful, besotted haze.
Jimmy Page got off hard drugs and recorded an album of old Led Zeppelin songs with The Black Crowes. You call that a benefit of drug-free thinking?
We love our favorite musicians and we don’t want to see them hurt themselves by no longer hurting themselves. The Who lost nut job drummer Keith Moon and who cares about anything they’ve done since? Tom Waits stopped living in lonely bachelor squalor at the Tropicana Motel with only a bottle of beer and jar of mustard in the refrigerator. He got married, moved to Sonoma, and these days his music is revered by critics—but in those days it was revered by a bunch of people who actually listened to it and bought it. At the height of their fame, Jabbaesque Blues Traveler harp player John Popper lost 200 pounds and the band has never sold more than 200 copies of any album since. The Stones are kept alive not by their music or marketing but by Keith Richards’ ongoing shtick of snorting his father’s ashes or getting his entire blood supply transfused. I like to listen to Oasis and I don’t want to hear that the Gallagher brothers are getting along at last.
It’s better to burn out than to fade away, said Neil Young -- a guy who should spend more time listening when he says things like that. Maybe if Rod Stewart had accidentally strangled himself in some humiliating attempt at sexual asphyxia back when he was in The Faces we would still be listening to him. Or at least we wouldn’t have to.
Of course, we celebrate when someone triumphs over their personal demons and demonstrates the awareness, determination and individual integrity that become life-affirming examples of the best that human beings are capable of. But not these human beings. It’s not fair, it’s not right and it’s not a very good financial return for all we’ve invested in them. Who supported their bad habits in the first place by buying their records and concert tickets when we never knew what we were going to get? It was us. They owe us.
What is the future of our music if all our favorite musicians begin living organically, raising children and getting all American Idol and corporate on us?
Thank God for Hip Hop, is all I’ve got to say.
R.I.P. Amy Winehouse