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Articles

Earlier this week, Starbucks Coffee Co. CEO Howard Schultz announced that the coffee chain will not cut health insurance benefits or reduce hours for its employees in anticipation of the U.S. Affordable Care Act.

"Other companies have announced that they won't provide coverage for spouses; others are lobbying for the cut-off to be at 40 hours. But Starbucks will continue maintaining benefits for partners and won't use the new law as excuse to cut benefits or lower benefits for its workers," Schultz told Reuters on Monday.

For Schultz and Starbucks, this announcement is not simple an act of altruism or benevolence – it’s smart business strategy.  If I learned anything while writing The Athena Doctrine, it's that a brand’s perception and its company culture are inherently intertwined. And company culture is driven by the leadership behind it.

Take Berliner Seilfabrik, a Berlin-based company successfully built to make elevator cables – until a proposal from a playground architect changed everything. ‘‘He had the idea of building [play structures] with three-dimensional nets,’’ recalled David Koehler, the owner.   The leadership at Berliner Seilfabrik found the proposal intriguing – and with the help of a skilled craftsman, found a way to make soft but sturdy rope that could withstand weather extremes and be configured into a variety of shapes. Today, the company no longer produces elevator cables – instead, playgrounds are the bulk of its business, marketed worldwide (our hometown of New York City has several).

When I interviewed the employees at Berliner Seilfabrik for The Athena Doctrine, I realized it is successful in large part to its Athena style of leadership, which emphasizes an innovative, collaborative, empathetic culture – and is a great example of the mittelstand, the German term for middle-size manufacturers that employ between fifty and two hundred workers, that forms the backbone of the sturdy German economy. Many of the mittelstand businesses are family-owned with a strong sense of culture – which often leads to less turnover and greater specialization.

Loyalty and collaboration are key to success at Berliner Seilfabrik, where everyone is part of the decision making. ‘‘We used to make big decisions on our own, within management,’’ said David. ‘‘Now we include the designers, salespeople, even production. We show them the proposed brochure and say, ‘Is this something you can go with?’’’ Remarkably, almost every worker in the company feels confident expressing an opinion, a confidence that ultimately effects the bottom-line. It’s this mentality – one that accounts for softer metrics like employees’ well being – that helps establish great company cultures, motivates great workers, and builds great companies.

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