A Toast to Courage and Compassion: Our Vote for the Best Employee Message of 2014

[Our Perspective by Michael Voss and Jennifer Rock]

If you’ve ever glossed over an uncomfortable topic or stumbled through a sensitive conversation (and who among us hasn’t?), you know this: Good communication is often more difficult than it appears.

That’s because communication is a fundamentally human endeavor – one in which you must consider how your message will be interpreted and internalized by people with different experiences and perspectives. Doing it well requires a combination of strong instincts, a human touch, the savvy to understand your audience and the intestinal fortitude to offer a thoughtful point of view – even in the face of delicate or combustible issues.

Failure to consider all of these factors is why companies and leaders so often find themselves under fire for issuing hollow, tone-deaf statements in response to challenges or crises. It’s also why when someone gets it right, it’s important to recognize and examine the achievement.

Enter Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks. Schultz recently sent a memo to all Starbucks partners (i.e., employees) to address something that obviously had been weighing on his heart and mind. It wasn’t an issue specific to his business, or even his industry. It wasn’t related to internal issues, activities or financial results. Instead, he chose to talk about the “tragic events and unrest” he saw taking place across America – from Ferguson, Missouri, to New York City and beyond – and his sadness about what was transpiring.

In his message, titled “It Starts with a Conversation,” he wrote with clarity and passion, as a leader and a citizen. He extolled the virtue of open communication, sharing his opinion that Starbucks employees should be willing to talk about issues facing society, and the ripple effects that impact all of us. And he did more than write about it – he shared how he had actually started the conversation by holding an Open Forum at Starbucks headquarters in Seattle. He shared a link to a video of the event (available only to Starbucks partners), and announced plans to hold similar forums with employee across the country.

Schultz’s willingness to engage his employees on a topic that extends well beyond their day-to-day business is brave and compelling. To be fair, many of us would hesitate – with solid reasons too numerous to list here – to delve into such weighty and potentially divisive issues at the dinner table, much less in an all-company message. Still, his approach highlights several underlying principles of good communication that can be applied regardless of the topic.

He is proactive, starting a conversation about a sensitive issue that is surely on the minds of his employees. He approaches the subject in a very genuine way, coming across as thoughtful and introspective. He demonstrates transparency, and asks for input. He is open and accessible. He is everything employees around the world want in their CEOs: He is human.

Through his actions, Howard Schultz demonstrates what true leadership and communications excellence look and feel like. Here’s to hoping this is a trend we see more of in 2015.


Categories: Our Perspective

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1 reply

  1. Thank you for bringing Schultz’ message to our attention. Schultz has introduced substance and commitment into a medium where empty platitudes are often all that’s expected or required.
    His message itself is bravely identified and expressed, but more importantly Schultz shows that there are deeds behind the words. It is an example of committed organisational leadership, and should endure longer than any ‘best of’ list.

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