‘Onward, With Love’: Why Howard Schultz Is Leaving Starbucks

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Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz

Howard Schultz has long put his values at the center of his career, helping transform a charming coffee shop in Seattle’s Pike Place Market into the global javanaut that is Starbucks.

His purpose-driven leadership has made Starbucks a Best Global Brand and inspired Harvard Business School case studies. Through four decades of leadership he has steered the Starbucks brand towards growth, innovation and, when needed, tacking back to its heart and soul. Its True North continues to be serving as “The Third Place” between work and home—a welcome, inclusive space for people to connect and communities to flourish around the simple act of having a coffee and chatting.

His tenure has been marked by bold—and at times, controversial—moves to keep the brand true to its roots and purpose. In 2008, as CEO he closed its U.S. stores to retrain its baristas in the art of coffee-making, a move that cost $6 million in lost sales but reconnected its people and experience to the passion that drove its existence in the first place.

Having endured a few slings and arrows for daring to put racial issues on the menu with his Race Together initiative in 2015 in the wake of racial tensions across the U.S., last week the now-executive chairman oversaw the second time in the company’s  history that it closed its doors during business hours.

The 5/29 racial bias training seminar was a three-hour anti-bias seminar for employees and managers to discuss and regroup around the unfortunate incident in Philadelphia, turning a manager’s decision to call the police on two black customers into an internal brand engagement and training opportunity. (The training session is being offered as a free curriculum for other companies.)

Now Schultz is taking a permanent coffee break, stepping down from the company he has loved for four decades to bring his values-driven philosophy to, perhaps, bringing his leadership skills to the White House if voters agree with his vision. And if he formally decides to run for office, of course.

On June 26 he will formally step down as executive chairman and a board member of Starbucks, and will be honored with the title of chairman emeritus. Taking his place, former J.C. Penney chairman Myron “Mike” Ullman has been appointed as the next chair of Starbucks Board of Directors and Mellody Hobson has been named vice chair.

“There are no words to fully express our gratitude to Howard for the extraordinary company he has built,” stated Starbucks CEO and member of the Board of Directors Kevin Johnson. “He’s helped Starbucks earn the respect of millions around the world by always being true to a higher calling, and always being bold in creating a better future. He’s taught all of us that it’s possible to be a very different kind of public company. That must, and will, continue on my watch.”

Kevin Johnson Howard Shultz Starbucks

Schultz says he’s leaving the company in great hands. “Kevin Johnson is a true servant leader, and he will lead Starbucks as this great company enters its next journey. It’s our duty as leaders to constantly reimagine Starbucks. I am honored to call Kevin my friend and partner. And Starbucks is fortunate to have him. This leadership team is extraordinarily capable. They, too, believe that Starbucks has a responsibility to use our scale for good.”

As for his next chapter, Schultz is writing another book, this one about social impact and “the efforts to redefine the role and responsibility of a public company in an ever-changing society.” And while rumors of political ambitions have followed him for years, on Monday he acknowledged for the first time, in an interview with the New York Times, that running for office—with the 2020 U.S. presidential race looming—is on his mind.

“I want to be truthful with you without creating more speculative headlines,” he commented. “For some time now, I have been deeply concerned about our country—the growing division at home and our standing in the world.”

“One of the things I want to do in my next chapter is to figure out if there is a role I can play in giving back,” he added. “I’m not exactly sure what that means yet.”

Asked directly if he was considering running for president, he said: “I intend to think about a range of options, and that could include public service. But I’m a long way from making any decisions about the future.”

Schultz, one of the world’s most widely-recognized CEOs, also said he had planned to announce his departure in May but, but that was before the Philadelphia incident happened and a company-wide response and call to action was formulated.

Interestingly, in 2015 Schultz addressed speculation directly in a New York Times op-ed column titled “America Deserves a Servant Leader” (as he calls Johnson) in which he wrote that “despite the encouragement of others, I have no intention of entering the presidential fray. I’m not done serving at Starbucks.”

Click here to read Starbucks’ press release on his departure and here to read Schultz’s letter to employees, which includes this rallying cry which may resonate with other brands:

Please remember, Starbucks is at its best when our stores and offices are welcoming places for everyone. So stay true to our reason for being: inspiring and nurturing the human spirit through a sense of community and human connection. As you adhere to our core purpose, do not forget to innovate around it. Never embrace the status quo. Instead, have the curiosity to look around corners and the courage to push for reinvention.

Change is inevitable, and the world has become a more fragile place since we first opened our doors. Amid the chaos, try to listen with empathy, respond with kindness, and do your best to perform through the lens of humanity. Do not be a bystander. Instead, choose to be responsible for what you see and hear. No person or company is ever perfect, so learn from mistakes and be forgiving of yourself and others. And when goals are achieved, remember: success is always best when shared.

And yet… success is not an entitlement; it must be earned every day through hard work and teamwork. If you strive to be the best version of yourself and bring out the best in others, your dreams will come true again and again, and Starbucks mission, values, and guiding principles will endure.

Howard Schultz steps down from Starbucks

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