Key Leadership Storytelling Lessons From The Starbucks Crisis
This article originally appeared on Forbes.
On May 29th 2018, millions of coffee drinkers were not able to get their daily java at Starbucks. Eight thousand stores were closed for training, the company’s response to the arrest of two black men who peacefully came to a Philadelphia Starbucks for a business meeting.
This was one of several important actions Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson took in the wake of the arrests, protests and media coverage in order to convince customers that what unfolded on 18th and Spruce was “not representative of our Starbucks Mission and Values.”
Telling good stories has become a staple in corporate marketing these days. Closing 8,000 stores enacted Starbucks’ story in a very public way. But how do we, the consumers, know it’s not just a Band-Aid? How can we tell if this public story really expresses the leaders’ true motives and beliefs when it comes to diversity?
The fact is, no amount of good storytelling will sustain an organization if their words, actions and hearts are misaligned.
Stories are not made of powerful words or fancy visuals alone. The real stories lie in what we say, what we do, and what is truly in our hearts. Individuals and organizations would do themselves and their constituents a big service by synchronizing these three key elements--internally and externally.
What is this thing called “heart,” when it comes to organizations? Customers easily speak of companies’ actions as “heartless” or “heartfelt.” We know that companies must be steered by people who lead from their heart. Starbucks’ former executive chairman, Howard Schultz, also recognizes that “heart” is the key to it all. One of his books about Starbucks is called Pour Your Heart Into It.
I believe “heart” is an expression of the leaders’ deepest motivation--the core that’s driving everything else. It flows from the company’s mission and vision and manifests itself in the company’s culture, its interactions with customers, and the stand it takes (or doesn’t take) on societal issues.
Patagonia is one example of a company that gets their heart, words and actions aligned. Here’s how they do it.
Patagonia customers know the cofounder’s story well. Yvon Chouinard is a hippie and reluctant businessman who started out as a mountain climber and then began forging his own gear as a blacksmith.
The company has a bold and well known mission: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
They hire the kind of people who are most likely to make this mission a natural part of the company culture: “activist outdoorspeople,” according to a New Yorker profile of Chouinard. To foster continuing activism, they give employees paid sabbaticals to intern at local nonprofits.
Over the years, Patagonia’s words and actions have matched their heart in a very public way. In the mid-eighties they pledged to give away 1% of all sales (not profits!)-- often to scrappy local environmental organizations. They kept their word, supporting a few thousand organizations with the $75 million they have donated over the years. Another example: their “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ad campaign, which exposed the environmental cost of manufacturing clothes. Aligning actions with words, the billionaire Yvon Chouinard forgoes wardrobe updates. And their years of environmental activism have recently led them to take public action once again since they disagree with President Trump’s environmental policy.
These years of heart-words-actions alignment have created a living story--and it’s paid off. "Every time we've done the right thing it's ended up making us more money," Chouinard said in an interview with the Trust for Public Land.
Of course, not everyone can be like Yvon Chouinard. We can all, however, align our words, action and heart.
The Rest of Us
How can we let our own employees and the world know what’s in our heart? How can we let them know what we’ve been doing to align what we say and do?
Know your story. We live in a world that prizes performance outcomes over almost anything else. It is no wonder that even the most seasoned executives look confused (sometimes irritated) when I ask questions like, “why do you do what you do?” Senior leaders aren’t the only ones who ought to know their stories. Every employee high and low in the organizations should do the same.
Tell your story. Hardly anyone is working in a competition-free environment. When faced with competition, however, many of us get obsessed with communicating what makes us better. No. Instead, tell a concise yet compelling story of how you’ve come to do what you do, coupled with what matters most to you.
Live your story. Establish bulletproof checks and balances to monitor whether or not you’re being consistent. No one is perfect; no organization is perfect also. Mistakes will be make. So leaders need to set up a system where anyone can help detect mistakes and correct them before the general public catches on.
What will happen to Starbucks after we put up with not having our java during this big training day? How can we be sure that we know Starbucks’ true story? We need to look at their deepest motivations, their mission, vision, company culture and public voice. As you prepare for your caffeine rush, ask your baristas what they think about where Starbucks’ heart is. After all, a company’s heart has to be big enough to empower everyone throughout the organization, especially the frontline people.
Otherwise, it’s not a living story. It’s mere window dressing and eventually customers will stop believing in the corporate story.
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Esther’s new book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!