What To Learn From Starbucks

Jann Freed Leading 2 Comments

We living and working in uncertain times and for leaders, the answers are NOT in the back of the book.  We can learn from situations handled well and not so well.  What can we learn from how Starbucks has handled recent challenges?  

On May 29th, 2918, Starbucks closed more than 8,000 stores for diversity training.  Howard Schultz, Executive Chairman (at the time), wrote an open letter to Starbucks customers clearly explaining the situation, how they were going to respond, and why it was important to not only respond, but communicate.  In the letter, Schultz says:

“Recently, a Starbucks manager in Philadelphia called the police a few minutes after two black men arrived at a store and sat waiting for a friend. They had not yet purchased anything when the police were called. After police arrived they arrested the two men. The situation was reprehensible and does not represent our company’s mission and enduring values.

After investigating what happened, we determined that insufficient support and training, a company policy that defined customers as paying patrons—versus anyone who enters a store—and bias led to the decision to call the police. Our CEO, Kevin Johnson, met with the two men to express our deepest apologies, reconcile and commit to ongoing actions to reaffirm our guiding principles.

The incident has prompted us to reflect more deeply on all forms of bias, the role of our stores in communities and our responsibility to ensure that nothing like this happens again at Starbucks. The reflection has led to a long–term commitment to reform systemwide policies, while elevating inclusion and equity in all we do.”

As a consultant and trainer, I know it is going to take more than one day of training to change perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors, but it is a step in the right direction.  Since I interviewed Howard Behar, former President of Starbucks, for my monthly podcast Becoming a Sage (to be posted in 2018), I wanted to know what Behar thought since he is truly a servant leader.  I sent off a quick email and Howard Behar called me!

Behar said (and I paraphrase):

Values drive organizations and there is no excuse for what happened at Starbucks.  We think higher of ourselves and this incident sent shock waves because we failed and we lost a lot of goodwill overnight.

Closing all stores for a day is one way of getting everyone’s attention by taking a dramatic action which was a step in the right direction.  Howard Schultz immediately apologized, admitted the mistake, and took responsibility.  It reminded us that we need to be more internally driven by what matters most.  Starbucks has 350,000 employees worldwide and our customers and the public expect more from us and we expect more from ourselves!  

Starbucks will have to continue to education and train employees to do the right thing . We have to hold ourselves and leadership accountable.  We have to set the example, NOT be the example.

Behar told me that if he were still President at Starbucks, he would have taken basically the same actions.  He said it is important to “face up” and admit the wrongdoing.

We can learn so much from observing the actions and inactions of others.  Leaders leave their legacy continually with what they say, how they say it, what they do, and how they make others feel.

What leadership legacy are you leaving?

What are you learning from observing the actions and behaviors of others?