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August 28, 2015

Hit or MISS'ive - Hooray for Howard Schultz: Proactive Message on How To Lead In Tough Times at @Starbucks

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“But I’m a Barista…why does #GreatFallOfChina matter to me?”  On August 24, Starbuck’s CEO Howard Schultz sent an email to all employees regarding, “Leading Through Turbulent Times,” asking employees to “be very sensitive to the pressures our customers may be feeling, and do everything we can individually and collectively to exceed their expectations.”

Why did he do that? Why would a Barista in Minnesota, Maine or Maryland care about the nervy stock market in relation to his or her daily job of making and serving coffee-related beverages? By reaching out to its 190,000 employees (“partners” in Starbucks’ culture) at that time demonstrates why Schultz is an excellent Senior Engagement Officer (a title we feel he has well-earned…among the other, more official, titles he holds).  You can’t fault his wish for a little more sensitivity and empathy for customers, especially during the roller coaster ride the stock market has been taking.

Schultz’s letter is notable for a number of reasons:

  1. It was short and to-the-point  Four paragraphs.  Onward, as he says.

  2. It was unexpected, and has a strong call-to-action – By communicating to all partners at an unexpected time, Schultz grabbed attention and made them realize that their senior most leader is thinking of them and the jobs they do every day, as well as their customers.  It actively demonstrates the importance and relevance he gives to each and every employee throughout the company.   His message was clear: We have an opportunity to make a difference to our customers, and you (partners) are the ones who can make it happen.

  3. The message had emotional content – Facts, yes, and some humanness, too.  “Manage the company through the lens of humanity.”  “Making a profound social impact...and will continue to do so today and into the future.”  “The primary reason for our current and future success is because of all of YOU.”  It might sound a little like hyperbole, but in context reads sincerely.

  4. It reinforced TEAM – Great leaders create productive, positive cultures, a sense of corporate-wide teamwork that empowers and supports employees. Through this letter, Schultz reminds his partners of their individual and team responsibilities needed to achieve the desired corporate culture (we’re in this together). Likewise, he reiterated a personal commitment to make partners, and their families, proud of Starbucks.     

  5. It capitalized on an opportunity to communicate corporate Mission, Vision, Values – Mission, Vision and Values are often discussed at employee orientation, during annual meetings and hopefully during performance reviews. Schultz recognized a unique moment in time to draw relevance and timeliness to concepts that should be part of every employee’s daily life.  What service company couldn’t use a little more empathetic, helpful (and sometimes faster!) service? 

Suggested improvements

There’s so much right with his note.  That said, to make his letter even better, Schultz should have been more specific about what “exceed expectations” means and looks like.  Perhaps a few examples of what he was thinking would drive the point home even better.  Specifics always help and/or a story or two to bring the point home.

Overall, we applaud Schultz’ leadership.  He takes risks at times that some may criticize (i.e. the recent “Race Together” talking campaign), however leaders can’t expect employees to take calculated risks when leaders don’t lead by example. These tactics endear his workforce and allow them to see his human side.  He may not always get it right (although he did this week), but his engaged workforce will ride the waves of ups and downs over a longer period because of his ability to motivate, connect and communicate effectively.

- David Grossman

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