“Word is that the company wants us to talk about race relations with customers,” Sally, a barista at a Starbucks I frequent, said. “Have you heard anything about it?”
“Not a word,” I said. “Sounds strange. I’ll Google it.”
As Sally went back to taking care of customers — the line now 6 deep as usual — I did as promised, and it took only about a minute to confirm what were obviously her fears, it was true.
“It’s for real,” I told Sally. “You’re allowed — it’s optional — to hand-write #racetogether on cups and start race discussions.”
“I’m not doing it. I’m here to serve drinks and make pleasant chit-chat. I’m not doing it,” she repeated, as if promising herself.
“Well, like I said, it’s optional, but it does sound crazy,” I said. “It looks like it started yesterday (3/16). I guess you didn’t get any formal notice?”
“Nope,” she said.
“So no formal training on how you’re supposed to handle these conversations?” I asked.
“Nope,” she said.
“Well, that’s just nuts,” I said.
Fast-forward to Thursday (3/19) and I’m at another Starbucks (yes, I drink a lot of coffee).
“You guys have any race-based discussion today?” I asked the two baristas working the counter.
“Oh God,” Susan replied. “Not me.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Alice.
As Susan and I reviewed the highlights of the program for Alice, it became clear she was less disturbed than intrigued, noting “I’ve just learned about race-relations in one of my classes,” making it clear that though she was the most enthusiastic barista I’d talked to about the program, she was probably the least qualified to initiate and moderate such delicate and emotional discussions with relative strangers.
Now, let me be clear that I’m in no way debating the merits of discussing race or race relations or anything like that. The reason that this whole thing has intrigued me is because of the unbelievable poor way it had been rolled out. It never had a chance.
As shown by the discussions above, days into the program, baristas didn’t even know it had started, and thus were obviously given no guidance on how to proceed. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz proved himself to be all vision (questionable or not) and no execution. In fact, the program lasted exactly a week until it was formally shut down on Sunday, 3/22. So much did Starbucks wish to put #racetogether in the past, employees were told to get rid of anything smacking of the initiative.
“But CEOs are really supposed to be visionary — not in-the-weeds types,” you say.
Perhaps, but a CEO this bad at rolling something out needs to be surrounded by those very good at two things: putting his good ideas into operation and getting him to think twice about his bad ones. But when an organization like Starbucks rolls out something this poorly, I can only conclude one thing: the CEO has become a King and his colleagues courtiers. In short, nobody had the courage to say, “Howard, this is nuts.”
Instead, one can imagine a renaissance court, with an attendant gazing into King Shultz’s eyes, saying, “Sire, this is brilliant. You are so good.”
But beware — being stared at with such admiration is intoxicating, and drunkenness yields foolish actions. So if you look around and see a court instead of a C-suite of bright, strong and opinionated folks, think of shaking things up. But before you do, take a minute and come up with a real go-forward plan or, unfortunately, you’ll just end up looking like a jester. And once you’re in that role, it’s hard to advance any causes.