Last week, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson posted an open letter to all U.S. employees, detailing his company's strategy for the coming months in response to the ongoing pandemic, Covid-19.

"Words cannot capture the immense pride and gratitude I have for you, my Starbucks partners, as you demonstrate support for one another, your customers and the thousands of communities we serve," writes Johnson. "During this overwhelming and difficult time, you have shown up and stayed true to the Mission and Values we stand for, and I am forever grateful."

Starbucks has a major advantage in that it has already been through this situation once before. The company currently has more than 4,200 stores throughout mainland China, where the novel coronavirus was first identified. In China, the company says over 95 percent of these stores have now successfully reopened.

Leveraging this experience, Johnson explains that Starbucks will continue to navigate the dynamic situation of this pandemic by making decisions based on three simple principles:

  • prioritizing the health and well-being of its partners and customers;
  • playing a constructive role in supporting health and government officials as they work to mitigate the spread of this virus; and
  • showing up in a positive and responsible way to serve its communities.

So, what does that mean for the more than 200,000 Starbucks employees in the U.S.? 

As we break down the letter, we find a brilliant strategy that can help any business--and a major lesson in emotional intelligence.

The context

In its initial response to the coronavirus, which Johnson called Phase 1: Mitigate and Contain, Starbucks closed access to cafes and reduced service to drive-thru and delivery only for two weeks. The company also opted to pay all employees (which Starbucks calls partners) for 30 days--whether they chose to come to work or not.

Now, Johnson says the company is gearing up for Phase 2: Monitor and Adapt. This phase includes the gradual reopening of stores--but that reopening will look different across the country.

"For example," Johnson writes, "some Starbucks stores will continue as drive-thru only, others may utilize the mobile ordering experience for contactless pickup and delivery and others may reopen for 'to-go' ordering. As we experienced in China, this will be a journey and we are thoughtfully preparing for this next phase as we adapt in the U.S."

But in deciding which stores to reopen, and what services to offer, Starbucks corporate could have handled things top down. What it did instead was much better.

"There's no one-size-fits-all solution," writes Rossann Williams, EVP and president of Starbucks' U.S. company-operated business in an accompanying letter. "The impact of COVID-19 varies across communities, and decisions will need to be made locally, with our field leaders, store managers and local health experts."

Decisions will need to be made locally.

Let that sink in for a moment. Who better to make these types of decisions than those employees in the field, those on the front lines, those who are most in touch with local authorities, local partners, and local customers?

Additionally, Johnson announced that field leaders would have access to a special tool to help inform their decisions. He claims the data-rich dashboard provides comprehensive information, "including government data on confirmed cases and trends about COVID-19 and how that may influence decisions at the individual store level." As the ability to test for Covid-19 increases, he says they will continue to enhance their monitoring capabilities.

What does emotional intelligence have to do with it?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions. It includes being able to combine data and emotion in a way that gets the most out of others.

Unlike many companies, Starbucks is showing that it's willing to empower its people to make important decisions--like when and how to open up a store, while considering local circumstances. But Starbucks doesn't leave these local leaders without guidance--the company's corporate headquarters provides guiding principles, a rich data set, and an ongoing dialogue with those leaders to support their decision making. 

So, how can you apply this lesson to your business?

Avoid micromanaging your people. The ultimate goal is that they make good decisions: Give them the tools and guidance they need to do so. Make yourself available to coach and answer questions. Focus on keeping them motivated and inspired--by praising their accomplishments and praising their efforts.

Then, once you've provided these things, make sure to give your people the breathing room to move forward...and yes, to make mistakes. If they do ... scratch that--when they do, work with them to learn from the mistake and move on.

If you can do these things, you'll help your people to become the best version of yourselves.

Imagine what that could do for your company.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Williams made the announcement that field leaders would have access to a dashboard tool on Covid-19 data. It was Johnson who made this announcement.