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Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz attends the 2016 Starbucks Partner Family Forum in Chengdu, China. Photo: Getty Images
Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz attends the 2016 Starbucks Partner Family Forum in Chengdu, China. Photo: Getty Images

Dispatches from China

In China, the child (often the only one) carries the aspirations of the parents and two sets of grandparents. After all the effort that everyone's put in, they expect spectacular results

Four years ago, my Chinese friend Grace was looking for an English name for her one-year-old son. “What do you think of Steve?" she asked me. “Why Steve?" I asked. “Well, I like Steve Jobs," she said. “And I hope someday my son can be as great as him."

There was no further discussion.

Steve has been one busy little boy in all the five years of his existence. At age 1, his doting parents (and grandparents) were taking him to dance classes, music classes, painting classes and a gym for toddlers. Grace constantly scouts for overseas schools, hoping that Steve can finish his primary education in the US or Australia, thus making it easier for him to go to a college there.

More recently, the family—parents, grandparents and the nanny—has shifted from their own apartment in Beijing’s central business district to a rented flat on the capital’s outskirts just so that Steve can live within the radius of a certain international school and thus qualify to study there. The move has disrupted the entire family’s life. The grandparents are now far from their support circle, and Grace and her husband have to travel long distances to get to work.

Yet, she seems happy. Because obviously, all this effort will bring Steve closer to being the next Steve Jobs.

Now, let’s fast forward a few years. What if Steve, all grown up now, announces that he wants to become a barista at Starbucks?

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing shameful in becoming a barista. But in China, the child—often the only child—carries the aspirations of the parents and two sets of grandparents. After all the effort that everyone’s put in, they expect spectacular results.

This also presents a big problem for companies whose job roles don’t fit into the traditional notions of a good career choice. The obvious examples are frontline staff at McDonald’s and baristas at Starbucks. Being a barista at Starbucks requires a lot of skill but not a fancy degree.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz recognizes this problem. And so Starbucks, which counts China as its second-largest and fastest-growing market, has found a creative solution to make sure that families of staffers are on board. Since 2012, Starbucks has held four Partner Family Forums in China in the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu. The latest one in Chengdu saw 1,300 partners and their families attend the event. The crowd at the forums typically includes Starbucks staff, their children, parents and sometimes grandparents. In a 2012 BCG Perspectives interview, Schultz explained: “Think about an annual meeting of shareholders; we had an annual meeting of parents in Beijing and Shanghai, and we had about 90% participation. We did not know who or how many would come. In most cases, there were whole families. There were parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. It was unbelievable."

The forum is a way of reaching out potentially to families like Grace’s who would rather have Steve working as a top-flight scientist rather than a barista. It is meant to educate all the stakeholders in an employee’s life and instil in them a sense of pride about Starbucks, the company. In his speech, Schultz addressed the parents: “I promise you (the parents of Starbucks partners) we will grow this company the right way. …We will do everything we can to continue to build a great and enduring company that you and your parents can be proud of."

In this year’s family forum, Starbucks doled out goodies aimed at allaying the family’s insecurities. Full-time baristas and shift supervisors have been given “a monthly housing allowance subsidy to help them overcome the initial financial challenges of starting their careers and often, living and working independently". This should cover roughly half their monthly housing expenditures. In addition, staff with 10 years of service are eligible for one-year sabbaticals, called “career coffee breaks".

Another firm—a local pizza chain called Gung Ho Pizza—does some interesting things for employees. After working in the big cities for a long time, employees are often under pressure from their families to return home. Each time an employee finishes five years at Gung Ho Pizza, the company’s co-owner Jade Gray travels with him back to his native village, no matter how far that is. He meets the parents and also gifts them an envelope full of money. For the parents, it is a matter of pride and Gung Ho is able to keep its retention rates high. “Until I engage them and pitch to them why I think it’s in the interest of the family for their child to stay with me, then I’d never get a retention rate that’s going to allow me to grow," Gray told the BBC.

It would be interesting to see what Steve would become when he grows up. But as long as there are Howard Schultzes and Jade Grays, my friend would be happy.

Read an unabridged version on www.foundingfuel.com

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