in Work

Confronting the secret menu

For over a decade, I’ve been ordering a blended strawberry lemonade off the menu at Starbucks. As a bonafide tea snob, I don’t drink much coffee. I graduated from it after my teen years drinking it with my grandparents, so when I go to a Starbucks because it’s close or in a new town, I have a standby drink and it’s that one.

One problem. The blended strawberry lemonade isn’t on the menu. It’s a non-dairy substitute for the Strawberries & Cream drink they have. How did I find out about it if it’s not on the menu? An employee at a Starbucks in Connecticut 11 years ago told me about it and ever since, I’ve been ordering it.

Within our companies, we have our own versions of the hidden menu. Unlocking these special words can open up an array of possibilities up for the people who actually know them. Where are the secret menus hidden within our organizations?

1. Longtime employees

Some people master the politics of their organizations well. Where you have problems, they seem able to deftly navigate the waters no matter how rough. These people are the ones to watch from and learn when they’re working. You’re not going to extract from these wise souls the keycodes to the company, but you can learn how to position yourself to master the political waters in your own ways.

2. Asking questions

There is a desire sometimes within companies to seem like you have it figured out. I know early in my career, I had to learn that asking questions wasn’t a sign of weakness. In fact, some managers demanded you have questions to be sure that you were paying attention. It’s through this process of asking questions — maybe not the ones you’re expecting — that will help you better understand where you fit within the hierarchy.

3. Solving problems

My MVP Starbucks employee told me about the blended strawberry lemonade when I was asking for a different, discontinued cold drink. He could’ve apologized, said sorry and I could’ve driven down the road and picked up a Slurpee from 7/11. But he took it upon himself to provide insight that has benefited the company’s bottom line. Not in a significant enough way to impact the balance sheet, but I’m simply a customer who would not be a customer without this customized solution that meets my needs.

Last year, I was initially frustrated by the layers of bureaucracy that impeded the kinds of progress I’d been convinced we’d achieve when I took over a new role. After spending some time working with my team and honing our processes internally, it became pretty clear there were lots of issues within our organization that we could solve without having to break the upper layers of the process bubble.

In less than six months, we found a major systemwide project that’d been out of compliance for five years. If we’d been audited, it would’ve cost the organization tens of thousands of dollars per day for being out of compliance. After an initial meeting with stakeholders, we scheduled a smaller meeting with the project lead and developed a custom solution within a few weeks. We went from out of compliance to receiving calls from around the country wondering how we built it and how they can replicate the tool.

Learn the process. Repeat. 

In the early years, I’d go places and they didn’t know how to make it. I remember being at a rest stop Starbucks on a road trip across the country in Iowa and teaching the woman working there how to make it. Years of getting the same drink and watching them make it will do that for you.

These days, I have no problem finding a place to get one, as it seems the drink is popular enough that most places have at least one person who know 1) how to make it and 2) how to find it on the cash register to charge for it.

In the same ways, my team have managed to replicate our process across the system. I reached out to senior leaders from different departments to find out what their unique challenges are and those of their direct reports.

What we uncovered were dozens of “wants” that were simply not being tended to. A lack of personnel is a big part of it, but we’ve since managed to include some of these projects in our workflow and tackle a number of them months after discovering they were a problem.

For organizations, it’s important to make sure that transparency is our first order of business to prevent secret menus from cropping up. While it’s inevitable that processes develop from years of doing business a certain way, we have a responsibility to ensure that our procedures can be replicated to impact the bottom line positively.