In February, a melancholy memo from Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) CEO Howard Schultz to top management lamented the "dilution" of the experience at the company's stores and the "commoditization" of the Starbucks brand. "I take full responsibility myself, but we desperately need to look into the mirror and realize it's time to get back to the core and make the changes necessary to evoke the heritage, the tradition, and the passion that we all have for the true Starbucks experience," wrote Schultz, in a rare fit of fast-growth remorse.
The memo's leakage was met with the kind of emotion and analysis generally reserved for State of the Union addresses. First out of the gate were the skeptics ("gotta be phony"), followed by critics ("it's the people/business model/frontline operations, stupid"), concerned investors ("no, no, not the brakes!"), and admiring marketers ("a fiendishly clever PR ploy"). Meanwhile, loyal customers and frustrated baristas shed grateful tears.
Whether Schultz was being shrewd, sincere, or both remains debatable, as does the value proposition of nostalgia to an $8 billion company with 13,000 stores worldwide. What is remarkable about the memo is its reexamination of the company's direction in relation to its founding values. Schultz's memo nudged leaders everywhere not to argue with success (get real) but to engage it in a friendly discussion about what it really means. Has your definition of success changed with its achievement? Are you OK with that?
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan