On April 12th, 2018 Starbucks landed in the hot seat after an incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks in which two black men were arrested for "trespassing." The media quickly took hold of the story and the aftermath got pretty ugly. Protests, boycotts, and countless articles surrounding the incident flooded the internet and it was all we could talk about. 

In response, Starbucks announced that they would close 8,000 locations for an afternoon to undergo anti-bias training for all staff members and would continue training monthly thereafter. The shutdown cost the company an estimated $6-12 million in lost revenue and will likely cost even more through the ripple effect of goodwill lost for years to come. 

Starbucks and the Racism Connection

Typically, when talking about company culture, we start by getting our business coaching clients to start with a pad of paper.  We get them to clarify their company mission (what they really do for their market), vision (why they do what they do for their market) and values (how they do what they do for their market) in writing. 

As of 2015, here is how Starbucks defined this for their company:

Starbucks Mission

To inspire and nurture the human spirit - one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.

Starbucks Values

With our partners, our coffee and our customers at our core, we live these values:

  • Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.

  • Acting with courage, challenging the status quo and finding new ways to grow our company and each other.

  • Being present, connecting with transparency, dignity and respect.

  • Delivering our very best in all we do, holding ourselves accountable for results.

  • We are performance driven, through the lens of humanity.

So how did a company so focused on community, culture, belonging, and respect land in the hot seat over racism?

Reality Check

I believe Starbucks forgot a crucial step in creating their company culture. They forgot to do a reality check. In 2015, they revised their company mission and value statement.  The intention was to create an anti-biased, all-inclusive coffee buying experience. But after the flyers were printed and the website was updated, they fell short. The two men in Philadelphia were the reality check that Starbucks failed to do on their own. 

So, how can you avoid Starbucks' epic failure?

Start with getting your leadership team together to have an honest, adult conversation. Explore three lines of inquiry. 

First, discuss and brainstorm on what you want and intend your company culture to be. 

Second, imagine you were all outsiders looking in, how would you describe your company culture based on the behaviors, attitudes, and priorities you actually observe in the business?

Finally, explicitly go over the areas of congruence and incongruence between your ideal vision of your company culture and the observed culture.  And decide what you want to do as a company about the gap between the two.

Keep in mind that your leadership team will likely see things differently than you. Welcome their perspective and use their input to inform this process over time.  Also, remember that this is a process that unfolds over time, not just a "sit down one time" event.

When your values change, shaping company culture is exponentially more difficult. 

It has been said that the bigger the boat, the harder it is to change course. In the case of Starbucks, their value change was significantly more difficult to implement given the size and scope of their reach. And while it's easy to say that anti-bias training sessions should have already been in place prior to the incident, the deeper work of creating the culture that would guard against these behaviors was even more important.

They should have built-in hiring process checks for personality and values that fit with the company's. When bringing on a new hire explaining the company values isn't just a 10 minute talk, but it is something you share by having multiple people share stories and experiences to make those values and the culture real.

Remember, culture is the invisible hand that shapes behavior and tells people how to behave when no one is watching.

Published on: Jun 27, 2018
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