Skinny Lattes and Race Discussions? Howard Schultz and the limits of CEO leadership.


 Recently, Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz announced the company would begin a national conversation on race , also know as its Race Together campaign. The plan is bold. Either the baristas will begin conversations, write inspiring comments on coffee cups or provide race information to customers. I am not entirely clear about the details but not surprisingly, it has been met with tremendous controversy, skepticism and praise.

I am going to cut to the chase. I think Mr. Schultz’s current idea is dumb. The objectives seem vague. Starbucks employees are not trained to discuss race or to faciliate such conversations. Schultz, himself, seems pretty clueless about the ramificiations fighting bigotry in America. 

On one hand, Schultz deserves a little credit for wanting to jump into the fray. But, his is not above criticism for advancing an idea that just does not seem to be well thought out. Anyone with any experience addressing complex and deeply controversial issues knows good intentions can blow up quickly and leave both allies and enemies feeling angry and betrayed. Mr. Schultz is  a corporate leader. He is, I am sure, accostomed to calling the shots and making things happen. His company has the resources to create something amazing and transformative. The problem is he is not the ideal person to guide this plan. He will absolutely needs to step outside his role and his personal perspective and engage those experienced in in this area, like academics or counselors. No matter how big or successful Starbucks has been, this is not the job for a CEO. 

CEOs come up with ideas others implement. I am confident Schultz has no idea what race discussions mean on a day-to-day basis. It reminds me of the television program, Undercover Boss where a succesful executive often has no idea what goes on in their stores and sometimes does not have the skills to perform basic, but essential tasks. If Racing Together is unsuccessful, we know Schultz will pull the plug, which will support the misguided idea even that race conversations are too difficult.

Starbucks’ intiative may be a successful. Ultimately, it’s about having the willingness to implement a campaign that is long lasting with measurable results. CEOs come up with improvements that are worth considering. Like those Undercover Boss CEOs, Schultz should listen to his employees; start small; test programs in target stores; engage local community leaders and keep it managable. 

The plan is worthwhile. Corporations do good all the time. No matter how well-intentioned, a CEO is not cut out to lead a national conversation on race.

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