Howard Schultz is something of a legend. Under his watch, Starbucks expanded to become the largest coffee-house chain in the world. He took the company public to the tune of $271 million in 1992. And after stepping down in 2000, he came back -- twice. The first time to help the company weather recession storms and, most recently, to serve as interim CEO following the retirement of Kevin Johnson.
It's not all been lattes and roses for Schultz, however. Layoffs during the recession were a hard hit for the company, while food safety issues in China have stirred up a wave of critical press. Top of mind recently is Schultz's handling of employee interests and the push for unionization.
In his book, Pour Your Heart Into It, published a decade ago, Schultz highlighted his struggle with unions -- a very "I"-centric struggle, it seemed. He wrote:
"If they had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn't need a union."
Schultz may not have known it then, but these 14 words spell out the perennial struggle leaders have with building employee trust. It's not only about building faith in motives -- it's about communicating the priority of (and delivering) concrete benefits that employees need.
Unionization is just one example of this playing out in the present. Amazon workers have perhaps most visibly been seen as pro-union of late, with several stories surfacing about warehouses unionizing to preclude poor employee treatment. Starbucks is following suit. As The Wall Street Journal reported in the wake of Schultz's third entry into the CEO limelight, baristas are feeling overworked, overwhelmed, and burdened by complex orders. No wonder that a Buffalo store voted to unionize in December of last year.
In my mind, this reveals a disconnect between what leaders expect and what employees need. For many at the top -- even those who are seasoned -- the role of leadership is to inspire and model. Action is central to the work, but this is just as important as setting tone, vision, and voice.
This is true -- and part of why Simon Sinek's treatise on our "why" is so important. At the same time, however, many employees don't have the luxury of being inspired when bare necessities are lacking. When a job is at stake, when safety is in question, when health care is out of reach, when they can't pay their bills -- what matter are fiery speeches and golden promises then? These are the moments when employees aren't focused on nurturing faith in a distant leader -- they just need to have money in their pockets and confidence their wellbeing is assured.
Schultz has learned (and led) much since his book published. You can tell. His message to employees last November -- shortly before the Buffalo store's vote to unionize -- was more employee-centric, and keenly focused on their collective interests.
Case in point: This line, delivered when Starbuck announced Schultz would be returning to the CEO spot for a third time: "I know the company must transform once again to meet a new and exciting future where all of our stakeholders mutually flourish."
There's always a balance for CEOs -- appeasing shareholders while supporting workers. Clearly, employees are becoming more vocal and their interests are taking more of the spotlight.
Can Schultz manage to deliver growth and inspire while also ensuring employees get what they need? That's really the question.