Include U Challenge Day 8: Get Vulnerable, Says Starbucks CEO

CEO Kevin Johnson says that vulnerable conversations can help diverse teams bond and leaders learn.
Brian Smale for Fortune

Fortune’s Include U Challenge for September 8:

Be vulnerable with someone today.

Instructor: Kevin Johnson, President and CEO, Starbucks

“I feel like my number one responsibility is to serve the 330,000 Starbucks partners who wear the green apron,” Johnson says, which is exactly the kind of thing that you’d expect the CEO of a global coffee retailer to say. But as the company has made increasingly bold moves to diversify its workforce — like committing to hire refugees and make big investments in low-income, neglected communities of color — the people who are donning those aprons are increasingly very different from each other. How does he manage a diverse workforce? “We start by being vulnerable and sharing our life story,” he says.

Instead of just a typical store visit, Johnson opts for informal roundtable discussions with about six employees. The simple question, ‘how did you get to Starbucks?’ is really a prompt for everyone to share their life story. “The most amazing stories are told and people share very vulnerable things about their lives,” he says. Where they struggled, where they were helped, what they dream will come next. It’s one of the best ways to understand the real leadership potential of people who may not have traditional credentials on paper, and everyone else, too.

“The way I describe it — it’s where you learn to listen with your heart, and from that it makes you much more aware of the human experience which leads to empathy and compassion for others,”

Starbucks has opened eight shops in low-income areas, including stores in Ferguson, Mo; East Baltimore; Jamaica, Queens; Long Beach, Calif; White Center near Seattle; Phoenix; and Englewood on Chicago’s Southside. The move is part of a broader plan to revitalize local economies through jobs and leadership training, and partnerships with locally owned businesses. The company has committed to open at least seven more by 2018.

Creating a space for vulnerability is also part of the business plan. I spent a rainy afternoon in the Ferguson Starbucks with the Urban League’s Monique Williams-Moore, who has been running job-readiness programs in the area, including a unique one created with Starbucks to give kids with complicated lives a chance to learn customer service, team work and share their own stories.

Williams-Moore is a tireless advocate, making sure the young pre-professionals get whatever they need to focus on their growth — child care, interview fashion advice, a primer in shaking hands, whatever. “We need local employers to be comfortable hiring our kids,” she says. “And our kids need feel ready to put down whatever is going on in their lives, and become productive members of the workforce.”

How Starbucks (and superstar artist, Common) is helping black and brown youth succeed in Queens, NY.

Starbucks statement on DACA.

For today’s challenge, Kevin Johnson asks that you get vulnerable in a conversation with someone else.

“One of the things that has been most transformative for me personally in my Starbucks journey has been having a round table discussion with six of our partners, instead of a typical store visit. We all share our life story. What brought us to Starbucks? What do we aspire for? The most amazing stories are told and people share very vulnerable things about their lives. We’ve all gone through struggles — it’s the one thing we all have in common — and when people are willing to be vulnerable and share those experiences with others, it’s a great connection for understanding. [For people in big leadership jobs] I actually think it will impact the way you make decisions in many ways. I’ve learned so much from those roundtables and hearing these stories, and it’s made me a better person.”

Post your thoughts on today’s challenge on Twitter with #IncludeU30.

Looking for all the challenges? Start here.

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