A master storyteller. An empathetic listener. A servant leader. These are some of the qualities of outgoing Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz that could serve him well should he decide to challenge Donald Trump in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, say corporate communicators and former colleagues of Schultz.
Schultz, who is credited for turning Starbucks into a global brand with $21 billon in annual sales, will depart his role later this month after 35 years with the Seattle-based company. His immediate focus is reportedly to spend time with his family and write a book about Starbucks’ social impact initiatives and the expanded role of a public company in doing good.
In a letter to Starbucks’ more than 200,000 employees, Schultz said he was considering "a range of options" for the future "that could include public service. But I’m a long way from making any decisions."
And in answering a question from The New York Times about his political aspirations this week, he answered by saying: "For some time now, I have been deeply concerned about our country — the growing division at home and our standing in the world."
Corey duBrowa worked closely with Schultz when he was SVP of global comms for Starbucks from 2010 to 2017. He notes that, should Schultz decide to run for public office, he "can’t imagine anyone better to lead our country from the front with values we could all be proud of."
DuBrowa, who joined Google as VP of global comms and public affairs in April, says Schultz is the "embodiment" of servant leadership.
"I long ago lost count of how many times we would stop into a store while we were traveling somewhere in the world, and he would hop behind the bar and immediately begin visiting with our Starbucks partners and customers," duBrowa tells PRWeek.
He recounts one visit to a Manhattan store where Schultz spent 10 minutes in the corner talking to a mother and her teenage son from Canarsie, a working-class area of Brooklyn where Schultz grew up.
"Before they finished their conversation, he had hugged the mother and offered her son a job at Starbucks," recalls duBrowa. "You can't invent that kind of human connection; you either have that gift or you don't, and [Schultz] has it by the pound."
That gift, explains duBrowa, is especially important and rare in the divided world we live in today. He adds that Schultz has an innate ability to sense inequality and "bridge it."
Schultz also "wielded a mean soundbite" and "truly understood the vital connection between internal culture and external perception, and the critical role of communication in binding those worlds together," says duBrowa.
Mark Truby, VP of comms at Ford Motor Company, says Starbucks shows other companies that it is possible to pursue massive growth without losing a brand’s soul. The coffee chain’s secret to success: Leading with its values.
"You walk into a Starbucks and feel the culture of the company and therefore feel pretty good about spending $5 for a cup of coffee," Truby says. "It’s little touches like your name on the cup to the bigger commitments such as how they source coffee beans."
Kathleen Curtis Wolf, chief experience officer, The Purpose Partners, says she has paid close attention to Schultz’s leadership in action. Marketers can learn a lot by how he has built Starbucks’ brand, she says.
"I spent 25 years at Whirlpool Corporation and got pushback trying to improve the customer experience and develop corporate purpose, [with people asking], ‘But what is the ROI on that?’" says Curtis Wolf. "Schultz has proven taking actions that align with your purpose and values can lead to a path of profit."
Those values have helped the company successfully respond in times of crisis, she adds.
In April, a Starbucks manager in Philadelphia called police on two black men who were waiting for a friend, resulting in their arrest. The company apologized for the manager’s behavior and announced that it would close its U.S. stores on May 29 to train employees on racial bias.
"Starbucks’ response reaffirmed why I hold the company and [Schultz’s] leadership in high esteem," says Curtis Wolf. "Not only did they address the racial incident, but they said how they are going to action against it, and followed through and did it."
From a future political standpoint, she adds, it will be interesting to see if Schultz can continue his progressive stances that have a bias towards action.
Howard Pulchin, global creative director at APCO Worldwide – who has had interactions with Schultz while working the agency side for Starbucks – says what sets him apart as a corporate leader is his ability to make authentic connections with people and be genuinely curious about them.
"Sometimes when people move up in business, they stop being curious because they want to always have the right answers, but I don’t think Schultz has ever lost his curiosity," says Pulchin. "It enables him to talk knowledgeably from experience on a range of subjects, and that is one of the biggest things I will remember about him – his ability to connect and be more than the coffee businessman."
As for whether he’d be successful in politics, Pulchin notes that Schultz is well-connected in Washington, DC.
"I remember being at a meeting with him on the day of the presidential election in 2004 when John Kerry was the Democratic nominee, and [Schultz] was coming in and out of the room because he was getting all these texts from people in Washington," recalls Pulchin. "He was so plugged in and had his sources, and so one of the things I’ve been reflecting on is how this man is connected both in politics and with the public."