It was to be “training” to address flaws in human tribal reflexes and fear responses, some of the least trainable aspects of people. It needed to be simultaneously aspirational (“Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome”) and remedial (Don’t call the cops on the two black guys who didn’t buy something right off). Because it was an all-employee event at a ubiquitous brand after a condemnable incident, all eyes were on the company.
Starbucks met the challenge well. The coffee behemoth did the right thing, a good thing, and even communicated as it was with a foam of Pacific Northwest utopianism and CorporateSpeak, it set a tone from which the country could benefit now.
Anyone who has coached a youth sports team should be able to appreciate the problem facing Starbucks and every other major national retail operation. It is tough to get every player to consistently follow the game plan, even when there are only six hockey players, 10 lacrosse players or 11 football players in action at one time.
With 277,000 “partners” in motion - they mean “employees,” as they have to clarify parenthetically in some of their releases - it is impossible to guarantee uniformity. Run the math across more than 27,000 stores, that army of employees and the exponentially larger numbers of customers and transactions, and the requirement quickly exceeds any Six Sigma manufacturing process in scale and complexity.
This fact is the bane of every CEO, chief marketing officer, and brand manager who must depend on people to deliver on the airline’s, bank’s or restaurant’s promises. It keeps them awake at night, nervous that someone is about to do something dumb. It drives them to write policies, scripts and, in at least one case, a flow chart of robotic conditional logic of how to respond throughout a customer interaction. When I recommended to the brand EVP of one national chain that perhaps the company could rely less on scripts and more on people’s judgment to apply sound principles, she visibly shuddered. “Relying on the judgment of people in the stores," she said, "is the last thing we want to do."
With very rare exception, people do get the order right, exercise discretion and treat people with respect. Most people are kind enough and smart enough to navigate the idiosyncrasies of everyday interactions with people different than themselves. But once in a long while, someone somewhere messes up, sometimes excruciatingly so, as when a Starbucks employee called police on two African-American men who arrived at a Philadelphia store 10 minutes early for an April 12 meeting and did not promptly make a purchase.
So what to do when an incident so seriously contradicts founder and chairman Howard Schultz’s aspiration that the coffee shops be “a third place between work and home”? This week, Starbucks got it right in the following ways.
The company called a full stop. Closing all company-owned stores mid-afternoon is a dramatic move, even if the calculated loss of sales is “barely a drip in the latté” of $4.4 million. It’s a strong signal to employees and customers that Seattle takes the precipitating incident and the larger issues seriously.
The materials were well produced. The “Team Guidebook,” “My Notebook” and videos, since released to the public, were a well designed mixture of methods. They were neither patronizing nor overly complicated. One would expect nothing less from a large company, but it’s no small feat when the audience is so large and diverse, and the scrutiny is so great. When companies set to writing manuals or producing videos, with all the levels of approvals and vetoes, they usually fulfill the bromide that a camel is a horse built by committee. Starbucks dodged the camel.
The group workbook included real examples. Turning concept into action requires real-life scenarios, a number of which were included in Tuesday's training. A woman in dirty sweatpants is circling the cups for sale. Customer or shoplifter? A guy comes in to return a pound of coffee, but has no receipt. Process it or not? A guy with a really thick accent comes in and you can’t understand him saying his name so it can be written on the cup. What do you do?
Starbucks surrendered some editorial control to the right people. An external expert sometimes conveys the message more forcefully and with a different type of authority than the company’s leaders. This is true of the eight-minute Stanley Nelson Jr. short film underwritten by Starbucks to be included in these sessions. It’s the highlight of the work. The juxtaposition of a young African-American man explaining the concerns he has about others’ perceptions (“People feel uncomfortable when I walk in”) and a white man saying he has no such burden (“I’m not walking out the door thinking, ‘What kind of hurdle am I going to run into today?’”) is poignant.
The materials encouraged introspection without being accusatory.While there were some questions in the workbooks that sounded as if they came from a yoga session (“What inspires and nurtures your spirit?”) most were direct and constructive. “In your life, where do you feel a sense of belonging?” one page asks. “Describe the place. Why does it make you feel like you belong?” And then: “How can you create that feeling with every person that visits your store?” Good food for thought in or out of a coffee shop.
The company focused on core intentions. Starbucks’ curriculum did not dictate any scripts, but instead aimed for a higher level of empathy and understanding. It sometimes couched these in nouveau spiritualisms such as “being present,” “color brave” and “othering,” but it’s the thought that counts, and the thought was honorable.
It made clear where the leaders of Starbucks stand. Through videos loaded on iPads, employees heard from Starbucks EVP Rossann Williams, president and CEO Kevin Johnson, chairman and founder Howard Schultz, board member Mellody Hobson and COO Roz Brewer. It should be no shock that on the question of everyone feeling welcome at one of their stores, they are unanimously affirmative. Nonetheless, people actually do take their cues from their leaders, and at a time when a pernicious minority of elected officials and celebrities are troglodytes on racial matters, it is reassuring to see a group of leaders talking like grown-ups.
The company is not proclaiming “mission accomplished.” In the final video of the training, CEO Johnson declares, “Today was just a start. It was not perfect - because we are all human. And we are all learning.” Tuesday’s training does not appear to be strictly legal air coverage or public relations, although it clearly would serve as both, but rather part of a broader pattern of Starbucks endeavoring to be something more than a financial vehicle for shareholders.
From all appearances, it appears heartfelt. Videos of executives are a gamble. Some of the most caring leaders lock up on camera and falsely look evasive. Some of the least sincere can go all Mister Rogers when the red light goes on. Despite a bit of stiffness in the case of one or two Starbucks leaders on the videos played for employees on Tuesday, the sentiments they expressed appear genuine. Founder Howard Schultz’s message on “who we are and who we aspire to be” is particularly compelling. There is no left-right eye movement indicting he was working from a teleprompter. There are cuts between segments suggesting the folks at corporate fired up the camera, let him talk and pieced it together later. He seems to mean it.
“I want to ask something of you, which actually is quite personal,” he told the employees on that video. “Over these many years, we’ve built this company out of love, out of responsibility, and we’ve done it together. On a personal level I want to ask you that together we do everything we can to build that third place in your store in your community, in every neighborhood in an ever-changing America where everyone is welcome, in an ever-changing America where we will be the kind of company, the kind of third place where our values, our love, our humanity, our respect and our dignity for everyone will create the most welcoming environment for every single person. That’s my hope for the company. That’s literally my hope for the country. And I think we will all be better for it.”
What happened in Philadelphia in April was terrible. What Starbucks did this week in response was admirable.
Rodd Wagner, CONTRIBUTOR