Howard Schultz: A Leader, A Teacher, and An Inspiration


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As best I can remember I first met Howard Schultz in 2005 during work with Starbucks that led to the publication of my first of two books about the company, The Starbucks Experience. I was on one of the many maze-like floors at Starbucks world headquarters in Seattle (formerly the Sears fulfillment center back in the days when the Sears catalog was a centerpiece for retail shopping).

On that day, I saw Howard stroll up to the cubicle next to where I was standing and greet the Starbucks partner who worked at that desk. Howard personally thanked the partner for a recent accomplishment, chatted with her for a bit, and closed the encounter by saying, “Thanks again for living our mission.”

I remember thinking to myself: That’s the legendary Howard Schultz, he seems so normal.

Living Up to the Legend

Through the years, I experienced the genius of Howard’s leadership firsthand as well as his amazing communication effectiveness, and passion for a commitment he shared with me, which is, “To change lives one cup at a time.” I, like so many others, became a student of Howard and his ability to see, inspire, and drive operational and customer experience excellence.

In fact, the most brutal literary criticism I’ve ever received came from a reader of The Starbucks Experience who viewed it to be a “love letter to Howard Schultz.”

While I am convinced the criticism was over the top, I did and still do have deep respect for how Howard elevated himself from poverty and along the way fueled the meteoric growth of the coffee giant.

I share all of this with you as Howard announced his retirement as Starbucks’ chairman of the board on June 5th.  Howard previously turned over the CEO position to Kevin Johnson in April 2017.

From my perspective, there are a myriad of lessons we can learn from Howard (many of which are covered in my books as well as in Howard’s books: Pour Your Heart Into It and Onward.

Here are Three Key Howard Schultz Lessons:

1. Lead from the Heart

Howard talks a lot about emotions. He anchors much of his leadership to passion and trust and believes that leaders must “make investments in the reservoir of trust” for all they serve. His writings, speeches, and emails frequently reference love, passion, and romance. Specifically, he has suggested that we have opportunities to do more than become profitable if we demonstrate a passion for people, products, and community.

When it comes to products, Howard views retail as an opportunity to “romance what you serve” elevating it through contact with you and bringing it alive in the customer experience. For example, in my book Leading the Starbucks Way, I quote Howard as saying, “Espresso, coffee, and cappuccino creation are not a job, they are a passion.”

2. Admit and Learn from Mistakes

Certainly, leaders at Starbucks have made their share of mistakes, and Howard has repeatedly acknowledged them. One classic example dates back to 2007 in an email from Howard to then Starbucks CEO Jim Donald, in which Howard concluded that the company made a series of business decisions that unintentionally compromised the Starbucks Experience. Howard noted:

Now that I have provided you with a list of some of the underlying issues that I believe we need to solve let me say at the outset that we have all been part of these decisions. I take full responsibility myself, but we desperately need to look into the mirror and realize it’s time to get back to the core and make the changes necessary to evoke the heritage, the tradition, and the passion that we all have for the true Starbucks experience.

3. Give Back

Howard purportedly received a $1 million dollar advance for his first book (and likely earned substantial royalties beyond that amount). At the time of the book’s publication, Howard acknowledged, “I’m not writing this book to make money. All my earnings from it will go to the newly formed Starbucks Foundation, which will allocate the proceeds to philanthropic work on behalf of Starbucks and its partners.”

Those types of giving back actions have been amplified by Howard’s family trust, the Schultz Family Foundation. That foundation focuses on the needs of youth, veterans, and giving in response to disasters. A small sense of the impact of that foundation (just in the area of homelessness) can be found in a paragraph from the organizations 2017/18 snapshot:

Subsequently, 615 homeless youth and young adults were moved into safe and stable housing. We also joined the business and philanthropic community to ensure that No Child Sleeps Outside. This campaign has raised more than $6.6 million over the past two years and enabled Mary’s Place to open three new shelters for homeless families and serve an additional 500 families. The Schultz Family Foundation’s investment focused on both diverting families from homelessness and developing housing solutions for those families prepared to take their next steps toward self-sufficiency after emergency housing. As a result, 326 families served by Mary’s Place moved into stable housing in 2017, including 112 families who transitioned from unsheltered situations directly into housing.


So by now, there is no hiding it. I am an avowed Howard Schultz fan who is honored to have personally experienced his leadership excellence. Thanks for indulging me and hopefully indulging yourself in opportunities for leadership and customer experience growth.

I would love to hear about leaders who have inspired you and have a conversation about areas where you are seeking to lead your organization, your people, and your customer experience.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Joseph Michelli, Ph.D.
Joseph Michelli, Ph.D., an organizational consultant and the chief experience officer of The Michelli Experience, authored The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and the best-selling The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary.


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