There he sat, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, in the middle of a circle of chairs in a small conference room. It was less than a week since Schultz has retaken his post as chief executive, this time surrounded by Starbucks employees who had been gathered to share with him their complaints, their challenges, their personal stories on what's gone wrong over the years since Schultz stepped down.
"We are traveling the country, trying to, with great sensitivity, understand from you, how can we do better," said Schultz.
As he listens intently to one Starbucks employee after another, a pained look comes over Schultz's face. Employees lament about the lack of training, increased turnover, and extreme pressure they've been forced to endure as company profits soared, but worker conditions plummeted.
"What we say we value and what we do is not lining up," said one Starbucks employee. "I feel like that kind of encapsulates all of this."
In his first weeks back on the job, Schultz has prioritized these collaboration sessions, which the company says have been arranged in multiple cities. It's a brilliant move by Schultz--one that teaches an invaluable lesson in emotionally intelligent leadership:
In order to build trust, you have to listen first.
Let's break down why these collaboration sessions are so important, and what every business leader can learn from them.
(If you find value in the lessons in this article, you might be interested in my full emotional intelligence course -- which includes 20 rules that will help you develop your emotional intelligence. Check out the course here.)
How a listen-first approach builds trust and reveals better solutions
To understand why these listening sessions are so remarkable, we have to remember that this isn't the first time Schultz has led the company. It's actually his third stint as CEO, and the second time he's taken over in a time of crisis. Back in 2008, Schultz returned after sales faltered for several years, hit especially hard by the financial crisis of that same year, after which he conducted one of the greatest turnarounds in business history.
This time, though, the problem is different. The company's earnings of $4.2 billion last fiscal year were the second highest ever, according to the Wall Street Journal. Instead, the company is dealing with dissatisfied employees, including a push to unionization.
Nonetheless, Schultz could have come in with the attitude of, "I've fixed things before, I'll do it again." But he isn't doing that. Instead, Schultz is inviting the employees themselves not only to share their problems, but to become part of the solution.
And Starbucks isn't inviting just long-tenured employees, like seasoned shift supervisors and store managers, to share their opinions. It has also included baristas in these collaboration sessions, some who have been in their roles for only a few months.
To facilitate idea-sharing at one session, employees were asked to identify changes to current company policies "that could improve their professional and personal lives and make them feel more supported." Employees then wrote ideas on sticky notes and "upvoted" their favorite ideas by placing a sticker on them.
Listening to employee complaints isn't easy. Schultz has been accused of being tone-deaf at times, including recent attempts to explain why he believes unionization would be bad for Starbucks. But if the company is to succeed at regaining the trust of employees (or, as Starbucks has traditionally referred to them, partners), that listening is vital.
Finally, by personally visiting with store leadership in cities around the country, Schultz accomplishes a further goal: Beyond just empowering employees, he teaches other leaders within Starbucks to do the same.
"When Howard visited my store way back when, I remember how he listened and truly made everyone feel valued," said April Sabal, a former Starbucks manager who now runs her own e-learning company. "This laid a good foundation for me as to how to lead."
What you can learn from Schultz and Starbucks
People lose motivation when they sense you don't care. But the simple act of listening creates goodwill. When your people feel understood, they'll be motivated to contribute and can help you discover insights you wouldn't otherwise.
So, when it comes to solving your company's biggest problems, don't ignore your most helpful resource: your people.
Schedule time to meet together, in small groups if possible. Listen carefully, without interrupting. Allow them the chance to share their problems, as well as to propose solutions. Meetings like these will reveal key insights, and they will transform your people from employees to partners.
That's something Starbucks has been trying to do for a very long time. Maybe this time, as Schultz leads the company through another new phase, it will actually be able to make it happen.