Turning a culture around is very difficult to do because it’s based on a series of many, many decisions, and the organization is framed by those decisions. Here’s one example: In the late-’80s, before we went public in ’92, Starbucks gave comprehensive health insurance to part-time workers and equity in the form of stock options to part-time people. That created an unbelievable connection, and we still do it. … I also think that I was insecure about being a poor kid, but with that came a sense of values and sensitivity about those people who didn’t get respect and had low self-esteem because of that. So in the early days of Starbucks, my office was in the roasting plant. And I ended every day by walking the plant floor and thanking people who were the unsung heroes of the company. For many people, that demonstrated that I wasn’t sitting in some ivory tower. I was one of them. And I think the leadership style I have is that I’ve never put myself above anyone else, and I’ve never asked more of anyone than I was willing to do myself.
(How do you hire?) I want big thinkers. I want people who are going to be entrepreneurial. I want people who are going to have important things to say and the courage to say them. I want people to challenge the status quo, but I also say something to everyone I hire, and that is: “You don’t have to come in here and try to hit a home run, and let me tell you why. You’re coming in here because I and many others believe very strongly in who you are and what you can bring to the company. So you don’t have to come in here and prove something right away.” People who succeed at Starbucks are going to demonstrate a healthy level of respect and understanding of the culture of the company and the people who have come before them. There have been great people who have come into the company who haven’t succeeded because they have not embraced the culture and values of the company, so you need to do that.
I think one of my strengths is that I have a very good antenna about people. I’ll ask a few things that are probably different from a traditional interview. First off, I want to know what you’re reading and then I’ll ask you why. Tell me what work-life balance means to you. I would want to know specifically their level of understanding about our company and Starbucks culture, and I’ll see early on who’s faking it and who’s not. I obviously want people who enjoy coffee. I think it would be very difficult for me to hire somebody who doesn’t drink coffee. I want happy people. I want people who enjoy other people. And we’ll talk about what it’s going to take to win and I’ll ask people to describe that for me.
I think it’s so difficult to succeed today in business. The ability for the team to function together, to support one another, to trust one another, to have cohesion and to also have creative tension, is just mission-critical. If you came in to our weekly Monday-afternoon meeting, you would think, “Man, this company’s in trouble.” Because we are incredibly self-critical, and that’s an attribute I have because I know there are always areas of improvement. But we also have to find opportunities to celebrate success, and I want to find opportunities for the people in the company to find those moments where people are doing things really well and recognize them and support them and celebrate them, especially in this kind of environment.
If you don’t love what you’re doing with unbridled passion and enthusiasm, you’re not going to succeed when you hit obstacles. I want to see emotion. We are in an emotional business, and I need people around me who understand that we are an emotional business and have a visceral affection for it.
I would say one of the underlying strengths of a great leader and a great C.E.O. — not all the time but when appropriate — is to demonstrate vulnerability, because that will bring people closer to you and show people the human side of you. Now, in order to demonstrate vulnerability, you have to make sure you have people around you who will never use that against you, because you trust them and they trust you. So the ability, behind closed doors, to have open and honest conversations with your team about the concerns you have, the fears you have, and the opportunities, is the balance that someone needs to succeed.
Today I had a Ph.D. interview after long consideration. The thing was I got too stressed for the last couple of days, so the interview happened to be a chance to vent my anger. I wore a casual polo shirt and cotton pants instead of dressing up, partly because I didn’t have a suit that fits me, but mainly for my little protest against the professors who would be against my clothes. (What?? Why so aggressive? But really, I was curious how they would respond to my clothes.) I also tried to loosen the tense during the interview by having informal conversations with the interviewers. I wanted to see if this would be any good.
While I was looking back on the interview afterwards, at some points I was not balanced and my behaviors were too much. I feel sorry for some professors, especially, Prof. Junehwa Song for my not-very-thoughtful words and inappropriate attitudes for the interview in which I probably should’ve been more serious and humble. I appreciate the comments from many professors.