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Pass It On: Starbucks CEO says great leaders are authentic

In this March 5, 2019, photo Kevin Johnson, CEO of Starbucks, poses for a photo in the company's Starbucks Reserve store, located in the company's headquarters building in Seattle's SODO neighborhood. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Starbucks serves 100 million customers each week in its 30,000 stores around the world. President and CEO Kevin Johnson wants the company to serve even more. The Seattle-based coffee chain is opening one store every 15 hours in China. In the U.S., Starbucks is introducing delivery, opening more drive-thrus and developing new menu items more quickly.

It’s a tall order for the former tech executive, who joined Starbucks’ board in 2009 and became CEO in 2017. Johnson recently shared some of his management insights with The Associated Press. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q. One of your most visible actions was your decision to close all U.S. stores for a day last spring for racial bias training after two black men were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. Do you think more companies should take that step?

A. I think the learning that we had is applicable to a lot of other companies. In fact, I’ve had many calls and emails from CEOs of companies both large and small asking for us to share the learnings and the materials that we created. That’s why we put all of those materials in an open source environment, so they’re accessible to anyone who wants to participate and engage in a way that I believe will also make them a better company. It has done that for us and we’re committed to this journey. And it is a journey.

Q. You spent 32 years in the tech sector before assuming your current role. How has your background in technology informed your work at Starbucks?

A. I learned about how to how to unify people around a common mission and pursue that particular mission. In addition to that, I spent years understanding how technology is reshaping the consumer. Starbucks has over 16 million active Rewards members and a total of 30 million digitally connected customers. We’re bringing in technology in a way that complements the human connection and the in-store experience. And that is a big part of what we believe is essential for every retailer. Every brick and mortar retailer must create an experience in their store that becomes a destination, and they must extend that experience to a digital, mobile relationship.

Q. What advice would you give your younger self?

A. Well, if I think back in my life journey the advice I would give the younger version of myself is be authentic. I went through life maybe not having the courage to show vulnerability or the confidence to really be who I was and as I got later in my life, I figured out that authenticity is the fastest way to create human connection and to lead people. That means having the courage to show vulnerability, show empathy and compassion and in doing that, you’re demonstrating something that every single one of us on this planet has in common. That is the human experience and that is what makes great leaders.

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