Starbucks' Secret Ingredient

How you can incorporate coffee chain chairman Howard Schultz’ persuasive communication skills in your workplace

If you've set foot in a Starbucks (SBUX) recently, there's no doubt you've been exposed to marketing for Akeelah and the Bee, the story of a young girl who tries to make it to a national spelling bee. The movie opened Apr. 28 and represents the coffee chain's first major push into theatrical releases -- part of a joint-marketing agreement with Lionsgate to promote the film (see BW Online, 5/1/06, "Howard Schultz Looking for His Next Act").

In many ways the story of a poor child with big dreams reflects the upbringing of Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz, who grew up in the housing projects of Brooklyn and now oversees the Seattle-headquartered coffee empire (see BW Online, 4/26/06, "Starbucks Perks Up Socially Conscious Films"). In the past few weeks I have seen Schultz profiled on 60 Minutes and the new CNBC show American Made. I found it inspiring that Schultz has maintained a very strong, persuasive, and consistent message since the time he granted me an interview for my book.

His powerful communication skills define a leader who knows not only what he stands for, but also the values he promotes, and who knows how to make an emotional connection with his listeners. In fact, Schultz majored in communications in college, took public-speaking courses, and credits much of his ability to win over investors, customers, and employees to his communication skills. There are three qualities that I think help Schultz stand out as a persuasive business communicator. My observations and three lessons you can incorporate into your own workplace follow:


  Schultz is fiercely passionate about what he does. But understand that his passion is not only about the coffee. He sells much more. You see, while Schultz loves coffee, he's passionate about creating a workplace that treats people with dignity and respect. That's the message he conveys consistently to employees, customers, and investors.

In Schultz's book, Pour Your Heart Into It, the word "passion" appears on nearly every other page. But he doesn't leave his enthusiasm on its pages. In conversation, Schultz exudes an authentic, unbridled passion for his employees and their lives. It rubs off on his listeners.

"You either have a tremendous love for what you do, and passion for it, or you don't," Schultz told me. "So whether I'm talking to a barista, a customer, or investor, I really communicate how I feel about our company, our mission, and our values. It's our collective passion that provides a competitive advantage in the marketplace because we love what we do and we're inspired to do it better. When you're around people who share a collective passion around a common purpose, there's no telling what you can do."

Lesson 1: Dig deep to identify what you are truly passionate about (hint: it's not always the product itself) and convey that message to employees, customers, and colleagues. When you are passionate, you come across as excited, energetic, and enthusiastic -- all of the qualities people like to see in others. And if people like you, they're more likely to do business with you or to back your vision.

While Schultz's passion rubs off on employees, it was his enthusiasm mixed with the ability to paint a vivid picture of what he was trying to accomplish that convinced skeptical investors to back his original concept. Schultz makes his money off coffee beans -- whole, ground, or what have you -- but what he's really selling is a blend of coffee and romance. Schultz has succeeded in painting a picture of comfort and community -- a third "destination" between work and home.

During a now-famous trip to Italy, Schultz's life changed forever when he took his first sip of espresso and steamed milk and looked around the cafe on a piazza in Milan. The Italians were passionate about their coffee drinking and treated it as a way to socialize. Schultz transported this vision back to the U.S. -- painting a vivid picture of Italy's espresso-bar culture and how Starbucks could replicate that experience. His pitch helped to transform a small Seattle coffee-bean store into a global brand serving some 40 million people a week.

Lesson 2: Inspire your colleagues, investors, or employees by painting a picture of a world made better by your service, product, company, or cause.

The very first line of Schultz's book has nothing and everything to do with Starbucks. Schultz begins by writing, "On a cold January day in 1961, my father broke his ankle at work." The story of how his father's injury left his family with no income, no insurance, and no safety net marked a turning point in Schultz's life. He consistently tells this story to employees, journalists, and shareholders as a way of inspiring his audiences to support his vision. I was not surprised to hear it again in the CNBC program.

"What does your dad being laid up by a bad ankle have to do with roasting coffee beans?" I once asked Schultz. "On many levels, the experiences I had as a young child formed my values and my understanding of what it meant for people to be left behind," he responded. "We hire 300 people a day. It's very important new people understand that when I started this company I had nothing -- what drove me then and what drives me today is to build a different type of company, to create an environment in which people are respected and dignified in the workplace." Schultz believes that personal stories inspire those around him by creating shared values.

Lesson 3: To get the most out of people, a leader has to tap into their emotions as well as their minds. People can relate to stories. They can see themselves in other people's stories. The ability to use stories to get people to buy into one's vision with their hearts is a powerful leadership capability.

Schultz never would have achieved his vision if it hadn't been for the passion and dedication of those around him. It was, and continues to be, essential that his staff all share a common vision. Through persuasive communication skills, Schultz made his dreams come true and continues to share them with thousands of employees, investors, and customers around the world.

  Lessons from Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz
Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.