The power of ritual: How Starbucks uses coffee tastings to anchor its staff

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The religious understand the power of ritual.

Sometimes, the mere act of carrying out a familiar action in a familiar place can conjure up the required mindset. It can anchor, forcing one to push aside the cares and concerns of the present to focus on some higher purpose.

The best businesses also use rituals, writes bestselling author Joseph Michelli in his new book, Leading the Starbucks Way.

Michelli is the author of bestseller The Starbucks Experience, which looked at the business model of the company. Leading the Starbucks Way is his companion to the earlier book: a practical, question-based guide for business owners about what they can learn from the coffee company with a global footprint.

To write the book, Michelli spent a lot of time interviewing Starbucks employees at all levels of the company. One of the things that struck him, he wrote, is how much even the lowliest barista seemed to get what Starbucks was about. In many large companies, it’s hard to get the senior management and the frontline staff on the same page. But at Starbucks, he wrote, everyone seemed to ‘get it’.

Michelli argues that this is in no small part because of the rituals Starbucks’ employees take part in, which help communicate and reinforce the company’s desired values and actions.

These rituals have been driven by the experiences of Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, who while travelling in the 1980s was struck by how baristas working for small Italian coffee houses in Milan were clearly passionate about their product.

The coffee artisans, Schultz wrote in his book Onward, “seemed to be doing a delicate dance as [they] ground coffee beans, steamed milk, poured shots of espresso, made cappuccinos and chatted with customers side-by-side at the coffee bar”.

Seeing how coffee was being served in Italy convinced Schultz that making a good coffee required passion. And he set about looking for a way to instil a love of coffee in his staff.

This isn’t easy, because most of the people employed by Starbucks do not necessarily come to the company with a love of coffee.

The first thing a new hire at Starbucks does is undertake a coffee tasting of the store manager’s favourite coffee. This is teaching by example, Michelli writes. It demonstrates the store manager’s passion for coffee, and thus displays the desired behaviour to the new recruit.

These values are driven home by the company’s training modules. Over several weeks, the new hire is required to taste and document their reactions to all the coffee blends on offer at Starbucks. They are also taken through the economics of coffee: the challenges faced by coffee-growing communities; coffee’s place as one of the world’s most traded commodities; and how Starbucks’ fair trade practices make a difference to those communities.

Even executives at the company regularly undertake rituals to remind themselves of the centrality of coffee to their business, Michelli writes. He interviews Dub Hay, a senior vice president at Starbucks who started the October 2012 Leadership Conference with a huge coffee tasting of the company’s new Thanksgiving Blend. Together, 10,000 store managers and 200 partners and executives tried the coffee, shouting out their impressions.

While this was a larger coffee tasting than most, it wasn’t unusual, Michelli adds.

Coffee tastings are how Starbucks people meet each other – a ritual to remind them of the passion they try to convey to their customers.

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Myriam Robin is a reporter for SmartCompany and its sister site LeadingCompany. She has degrees in economics, international studies and journalism. She likes writing about businesses taking risks and doing new things.

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