Coffee & Courage: Starbucks Shows Why Corporate Character Matters

June 15, 2015, Gary Sheffer

The Page Model tells us that the CCO's role begins with defining, curating and instilling corporate character - the beliefs, the values, the culture, the purpose and the actions that define an enterprise.

At the 2014 Page Society Annual Conference we heard from Corey duBrowa of Starbucks about its partnership with Arizona State University covering tuition fees for its employees (Starbucks calls them “partners") to complete their bachelor's degrees. Starbucks has a responsibility, Corey explained, to advocate for its most important stakeholder, its partners, and the issues that matter to them. A keen sense of this responsibility helps Starbucks build shared belief in its corporate character, and speaks to the heart of its mission to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.

This and other Starbucks initiatives, including a pledge to hire 10,000 veterans and military spouses, have been praised widely. A more recent campaign, raising attention to an issue that mattered to its baristas, that of race relations in the wake of several incidents in U.S., has received negative reviews. It began when Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz called an impromptu all-company meeting to discuss racial tension in America. For more than an hour, Starbucks employees shared personal experiences and made it clear that they care about this issue. Schultz said, “Despite the raw emotion around the events and their underlying racial issues, we at Starbucks should be willing to talk about them internally. Not to point fingers or to place blame, and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are."

It was the shift to an external discussion about race that caused the public reaction. Having baristas write RaceTogether on coffee cups was intended to encourage discussion among customers. Some critics opined that nobody wants to talk race when they're buying a cup of coffee, and that this was a ham-fisted tactic by Starbucks to create the appearance of a corporate social conscience.

The public reaction to this tactic notwithstanding, I applaud Starbucks for standing by its mission and culture, for listening to employees, and for furthering a discussion of the role of the enterprise in society.

Jack Welch told us at the Page Society's Spring Seminar in April that the CCO has a unique responsibility. The CCO is the eyes and ears, he said, who sees and listens across the enterprise and informs and counsels leadership with a broader perspective than any other member of the C-Suite, with the exception, perhaps, of the CEO.

Starbucks listening to its key stakeholders and taking action on the issues that matter to them the most goes to the heart of its corporate character. There is surely no doubt that the company listens and acts on what it hears – it is adding stores in underserved areas and hiring thousands of “at-risk" youths. Tackling tough problems like these is the very antithesis to the charges of “spin" that are still levelled at our profession.

Many of you have heard Corey speak with passion about driving a purposeful culture at Starbucks. He is a strategic counsellor and a guardian of enterprise reputation and also a critical thinker that helps mobilize his company around important issues. This kind of work will be increasingly necessary to business in a low-trust, volatile world. No one is better positioned to meet this need than CCOs.

What are your thoughts? Connecting issues that no one else does has been identified as a key element of the CCOs role by our membership and will be reflected in the Future of the CCO report to be published later this year.

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