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Coffee culture

By Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove

Recently we were at a meeting at a major international bank. We were meeting with one of the bank’s directors to talk about a potential sponsorship deal. We made our way through reception and security up to the thirtieth floor where the panoramic views of London were breathtaking.

Then in came the banker we were meeting. After the usual greetings, he asked if we would like a cup of tea or coffee though, he added, ‘I should tell you that the coffee is truly awful here’. We paused and declined.

Thinking back there were a couple of other organizations we had visited over the years where people had said something similar. Their coffee was also a drink only for the truly desperate.

A storm in a coffee cup perhaps, but such small things communicate very strong messages. The banker talked exhaustively about how the bank was changing its culture to one of greater transparency and so on. Engagement and excellence were alluded to.

And yet the bank couldn’t even offer a good cup of coffee to visitors – or its own staff. Of course, it could be interpreted as sensible care of its finances, a bank unwilling to throw money around on half decent coffee. Or of Presbyterian professionalism, an organization unwilling to underwrite peripheries.

But that is not what we thought. We looked around at the beautifully appointed and hugely expensive offices, and the well-remunerated banker sitting in front of us, and thought it odd that for all the talk of excellence and so on, the first communication we had had was about a low-quality product which the banker and the organization were happy to have on offer to staff and visitors.

What did this say about the company’s culture and its attitude to its employees and visitors? Our conclusion: not much.

We thought back to other experiences where our welcome was tepid and unfriendly. Once we flew across the Atlantic for a meeting at which we weren’t offered a drink at all – it was a two-hour meeting, first thing in the morning. We can recall a handful of other such occasions. The thing is we remember them, the people and the organizations. Bad experiences – and cultures – stick in the memory banks.

And then, at our recent caffeine-free meeting at the bank, to make matters worse, the banker started to tell us what a hectic time it had been for him lately, how working for a bank was incredibly demanding and time consuming. He would, we thought, have benefitted from some decently caffeinated and drinkable coffee. And we have regularly encountered such lamentations, people telling us how hard they are working and what a hectic organization/industry they are in.

This may well be true. The banker did look like slightly unhealthy and frazzled. But there are a number of assumptions here. First, we often have the sense that people wish us to be impressed by the hectic, packed nature of their schedules, a kind of diary envy. Truth be told, we are desperately unimpressed by people who tell us they work every hour of the day and have meetings scheduled to cover every waking minute. Is this efficient? We doubt it. Is it leadership? Most definitely not.

The second assumption at work here is that people who tell you how hard they are working are assuming that they work harder than you do. They may well be, but most people are working harder and longer. It doesn’t matter if you are sweeping the street or running a multinational, work is demanding and draining.

We left the bank shaking our heads. As we discussed the meeting over a reviving cup of coffee, we contemplated the lessons it offered. Obviously, the secret to success is not simply a matter of serving drinkable coffee and remembering not to tell people how hard you are working. The starting point of success is not to accept mediocrity. Once it has been accepted, second rate becomes the default expectation of the organization. And it starts with small things, such as the coffee on offer. That’s why companies such as Google offer great and free food and drink to all employees. An army – and every other organization – marches on its stomach.

The second thing is to listen and think of other people. No one really cares if you work twenty hours a day – especially if you are a highly paid banker. Success requires that you tune into your audience. What do they think? What is on their agenda? Ask them and then pass the chocolate to shake on their perfectly prepared cappuccino.

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