Starbucks staff have been at loggerheads with their CEO for more than a year now—and it’s a legacy the new man in the top job is keen to put to bed.
Former coffee boss Howard Schultz was at war with his rank and file over the creation of a union in 2021.
When the brand announced a raft of employee benefit improvements last year it added those who were members of the union were excluded.
Schultz previously said he wasn’t anti-union but pro-Starbucks, writing in a letter to employees: “I do not believe conflict, division, and dissension—which has been a focus of union organizing—benefits Starbucks or our [employees].”
Now Starbucks’ new CEO Laxman Narasimhan—who took over the reins at the coffee chain two weeks earlier than expected—has announced he wants to spend half a day every month in stores working as a barista.
Narasimhan wrote in a letter to staff on Thursday: “You’ve welcomed me into our stores, trained me in how to be a barista … all to help me deeply understand what we do, how we do it, and the challenges and opportunities facing us. To keep us close to the culture and our customers, as well as to our challenges and opportunities, I intend to continue working in stores.”
Be a human, not a title
Staff aren’t yet convinced Narasimhan will enforce the change they want to see at the top.
To get their buy-in, experts said, the CEO will need to truly listen to the issues and make sure his leadership team helps to enact change.
Chris Preston is the founder and director of U.K.-based employee engagement specialists The Culture Builders and said that if Narasimhan avoids the pitfalls CEOs often fall into when it comes to culture initiatives, it could be an extremely positive idea.
He explained: “It needs to be low-key and consistent. It’s can’t be ‘Oh my God the CEO is coming in’, it just needs to be something that happens. I’ve seen two extremes of this: at one company there was a meeting with executives that happened once a month and had done for years, it was really relaxed. At another big pharmacy brand when the CEO came to visit it was like the Royals were in town.”
Instead of telling employees what they’re doing, the C-suite needs to “shut up and listen” if they want to enact positive change, he added. CEOs need to be seen by their staff as humans and not titles, he added, so instead of operating from a pedestal bosses need to get to grips with the real challenges in the trenches.
It was a sentiment echoed by Piers Hudson, senior director of research at global HR specialists Gartner, based in Connecticut. Hudson added: “If it’s not perceived that the CEO is actually there to listen and understand it smacks of tokenism and will lead to backfiring.”
He said the CEO should be showing an interest in staff as people as opposed to employees: “The focus of these visits should be both to help the CEO but also help people feel they’ve been understood.
“That could be how the job fits into their life goals and broader family issues, so insuring there’s enough of a focus not just on: ‘How do we make coffee quicker’ but asking ‘How does this fit into your life? Are we protecting you if people aren’t being pleasant to you?’ That engagement will help it not to feel tokenistic or like the CEO is just doing it to show their face.”
Value of a smiley face on cups
The Seattle-based chain is fondly thought of not only for brightening up customers’ days with hand-drawn smiley faces on the side of cups, but also for going above and beyond for visitors.
In February 2022 a Texas cafe was lauded for secretly checking a female patron didn’t feel threatened by an older man who was speaking to her. The note on the woman’s cup from a barista read: “Are you okay? Do you want us to intervene? If you do, take the lid off the cup.”
Staff clearly care about their customers, said Preston, and to make sure they don’t become disenchanted with their efforts there’s a simple aim to keep in mind: solutions.
Preston explained: “We work with a lot of high-performing sports teams and athletes and they typify this idea. They never dwell on an issue for longer than two hours, they’re looking at how they improve for next time. After a conversation CEOs need to have the moment where they say to staff: “How about we …”
He said staff need to understand the “why” behind company decisions, whether it’s why wages can’t be increased, shift patterns changed or more employees hired. That understanding of a reasonable solution then needs to be communicated to the rest of a business’ c-suite, Preston added, to make sure that agreements are followed through.
Employees can also get more out of conversations with executives by making sure the concerns they are raising are company-wide issues backed by data, added Hudson.
He explained: “Clearly there will be a diversity of experience in a company like Starbucks but the CEO and CHRO will be trying to understand if it’s a local issue or not. It’s making sure you elevate the issue to something which a business has structurally created the context for and making that link.”
It’s then on the CEO to establish what the next steps are and when staff will hear back, he said: “If left with no resolution it’ll only feel like staff have said their piece and have been ignored.”
Power of vulnerability
Used to being under fire from stakeholders, board members and more, CEOs can often fall into the habit of becoming defensive when faced with criticism.
Being prepared and educated on issues is key to beginning potentially combative dialogue in a calm manner, added Hudson, who also encouraged CEOs to embrace their vulnerability.
He explained: “CEOs are not necessarily great at being vulnerable. They’re used to being in combative conversations with investors and people who are trying to pull angles on them.
“Having somebody prepping them and perhaps even rehearsing: ‘These are the sort of conversations we might have’ and knowing where you stand on these issues will help.”
That opportunity for preparation should be extended to staff as well, Hudson said, giving staff the opportunity to “set the agenda”.