The Leadership Lessons of Starbucks

A man sits alone at lunch in his favorite Starbucks store and tells a green apron-clad Starbucks barista that the store is his midday refuge, noting, “At Starbucks, you are nice to me, you remember me, and you seem genuinely grateful that I am here.” – from Leading the Starbucks Way

Stories like this exemplify a company whose leaders establish a compelling vision and manifest behaviors that culminate not only in product sales but also in powerful, loyalty-rich human connections.

Here’s my personal Starbucks “Aha” story:

On a cold January day over six years ago, I was at “my” Starbucks for an hour’s worth of quiet study, accompanied by a White Chocolate Mocha and a warm Apple Fritter. I settled into a comfortable seat, observing the friendly, welcoming interactions between the baristas behind the counter and their customers as they walked in. I didn’t know I was in for Guest Experience 101.

While I was observing the barista’s interactions with customers, a young mother and her 3 year-old daughter came into the store. As they were walking in the door, the barista came out from behind the counter, said hello to the mom, then knelt down in front of the daughter, calling her by name and engaging in a conversation for several minutes – all while other customers continued to come into the store. The store was well staffed, so no one was held up by the barista’s actions. A seemingly small gesture? Maybe so, but it sparked a single question in me, one that I am still seeking the answer to today:

What would it take for churches to have the same kind of passion and enthusiasm in greeting their Guests?

That fleeting interaction between a barista and a Guest launched a journey that continues to expand into new territory. It’s only appropriate, though, to come back to Starbucks for new insights and applications for Guest Experiences in ChurchWorld.

One of the best-recognized and admired brands in the world, Starbucks singlehandedly transformed the ordinary delivery of coffee into a cultural phenomenon – a result of the company’s exemplary leadership practices.

Joseph Michelli, author of the bestseller The Starbucks Experience, explains that the international success of Starbucks begins with a promise: to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.

Michelli offers a perspective on the leadership principles that drove the iconic coffee company’s resurgence from serious setbacks during the economic downturn – one of the few turnaround stories of this time. The foundation of the turnaround was a Transformation Agenda (For more about this turnaround, see Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s book Onward; you can read some excerpts from it in a series of posts beginning here).

Here’s a list of Starbucks’ Transformation Agenda in seven bold moves:

  1. Be the undisputed coffee authority
  2. Engage and inspire our partner
  3. Ignite the emotional attachment with our customers
  4. Expand our global presence – while making each store the heart of the local neighborhood
  5. Be the leader in ethical sourcing and environmental impact
  6. Create innovative growth platforms worthy of our coffee
  7. Deliver a sustainable economic model

Those seven moves resulted in 13 consecutive quarters of global comparable store sales growth greater than 5%. Today, there are over 200,000 people serving more than 60 million weekly customers who frequent more than 18,000 stores in more than 60 countries worldwide.

Starbucks had positioned itself for enduring profitability and brand respect.

For his latest book Leading the Starbucks Way, author Michelli conducted over two years of research, with uninhibited access to leaders and partners at all levels of the company. More than 500 hours of interviews and research produced the following five leadership principles:

  1. Savor and elevate
  2. Love to be loved
  3. Reach for common ground
  4. Mobilize the connection
  5. Cherish and challenge your legacy

In this series of posts focusing on these five principles, I want to encourage you to accompany Michelli as he asks questions like these – but translated for ChurchWorld application:

  • How do leaders at Starbucks strategically and tactically steward the company’s products and people to build customer engagement, loyalty, advocacy, and even brand love?
  • How to these leaders model and inspire excellence in product delivery, the creation of moments of authentic service, and enterprise-wide appreciation for the importance of shareholder value, and a contagious demonstration of social conscience?
  • How do Starbucks partners expand relationships beyond the café environment?
  • How does Starbucks leverage technology to enhance customer experiences?
  • What does Starbucks do to customize offerings to address local desires around the globe?

As a ChurchWorld leader, I hope you realize that by changing just a few words in the questions above, you will have an excellent guide for your own journey of discovery.

Part 1 of a series in the 2013 GsD Fall Term

Leading the Starbucks Way: Information, Insights, and Analysis Needed to Create a High-Performance Guest-Oriented Organization

inspired by and adapted from Leading The Starbucks Way, by Joseph Michelli



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