Sunday, September 20, 2015

Book Review: How Starbucks Saved My Life

How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone ElseHow Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else by Michael Gates Gill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved this book so much I read it twice, a few years apart, and gained from it all over again. It's been a long time since I did that. Well done, Mr. Gill.

The basic rundown here is that a well-connected, highly-educated, and talented member of the 1% unexpectedly loses his job just as he hits the age when getting a new one is going to be very difficult. Could he prove age discrimination? Maybe. But he doesn't sue. Instead, he ekes out a living consulting for a while, but without much ambition it doesn't really take off. The truth is that depression has him in its grip... and then he gets a diagnosis of a serious illness. Self-employed, he has no insurance. He's living in a friend's attic. He walks in to a Starbucks for a treat he can ill-afford and doesn't notice the sign for the employment open house. When the young manager asks him if he wants a job, he surprises himself by saying "yes."

That's when a son of privilege learns to live like everyone else.

Michael Gates Gill, the Ad Executive in the chauffeured limousine, is now Mike, the guy with the three-train commute. Michael Gates Gill, who has met and worked with Jackie Kennedy, Ernest Hemingway, Lee Iacocca, Muhammed Ali, Brooke Aster, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Sinatra, Truman Capote, James Thurber and others, is now Mike the guy cleaning bathrooms at the local Starbucks, hoping he won't be asked to work the cash register. But this is not a story about the transformative power of humble pie. It's about finding real teamwork, real camaraderie, real leadership, real respect and kindness, and real challenges, all in the last place he would have thought to look. He says:

"Here at Starbucks both the Partners and the Guests seem to have agreed tacitly that everyone should be treated with respect and dignity. I had never seen any work environment like it. The best Fortune 500 companies I had encountered, despite spending months and lots of money writing and publishing high-sounding mission statements, never practiced the corporate gobbledygook they preached."

The 28 year old supervisor of Gill's Starbucks is a case study in how to be an excellent manager and a great leader. Without any formal training and against all odds, she makes the calls, requires people to be kind to each other, orients new employees according to their unique needs, offers praise, and sets a tone of mutual responsibility across the team. She respects how difficult it is to clean a toilet. She is not competitive with her staff. She gets results.

To his credit, Gill realizes that part of his journey now is to find ways to live for the present and future, focus on the positive, and embrace life on its own terms. He knows he has unique skills he can offer (he's an advertising professional, after all) and slowly but surely finds ways to employ them for the good of the team. He genuinely enjoys interacting with the customers and gets to know many of them. He comes to see his "fall" as akin to Alice's drop through the rabbit hole into a previously-unimagined new world. Serving coffee side by side with people you like is better than sitting in an air-conditioned office with people you don't. Another quote:

"I could be sincere at Starbucks because I was finally in a work environment that valued those precious moments of truly human interaction. From the moment when I admitted that I was happy to be there, it had seemed so simple and easy. Why didn't every company work that way?"

In the end, Gill offers some advice for others who want to change their lives 1) take a leap of faith, 2) look at others with respect, and 3) listen to the happiness inside your heart.

Fabulous book. A real gift. I will probably read it again some day, when I need to remember that life is really not as hard as we make it sometimes.

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