Monday, April 30, 2018

Leadership and Ethics: Lessons from Starbucks

Diversity, inclusion, racism, misogyny, #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, are common news topics. Really every day a new story of white privilege and male privilege fill our newsfeeds. For all those that make the case that systemic racism and sexism is still thriving and in some ways has found new fertile ground, there are others who deny it, refuse to see it and see those who share their experiences with racism and sexism as attention seeking victims.

One of these stories was the police being called to a Starbucks and arresting two African American men who were waiting for a third person to join them. From a simple request to use the restroom while waiting for their friend to arrive and the plan to order and spend time and money at the Starbucks, escalated to the police coming and arresting the two men, just as the friend arrived. The video has now made its way around the web, white people shocked that this happened, people of color shaking their heads at yet another example of white privilege, with both Starbucks and the police left with the question of what's next. What is different in this story, is the response of Starbucks CEO, Kevin Johnson. He owned that this was about bias, it was about racism, and his response was unequivocal - "was nothing but reprehensible."

If you have not yet seen the video of his statement and apology, go watch it. He demonstrates leadership, integrity, and putting his ethics into action. In addition, as you listen to his apology - notice what is in it and what is not.

In his apology, he takes full responsibility for what happened. As the CEO, he owns that in the end, responsibility begins and ends with him. He just takes responsibility. He offers no excuses or explanations. He doesn't deflect blame to the manager or to the police. He says, this is a "management problem and it is one I need to fix, making sure this doesn't happen again."

What is so remarkable is the unequivocal way he apologizes and takes responsibility. It is so rare that we hear an apology like this one. Here are a few things that make his apology so unique:
  • there is no "I am sorry if feelings were hurt"
  • there is no "I am sorry and yet.....there were these extenuating circumstances that let you know it isn't really my fault"
  • he does say "I am responsible"
  • he does say "I am sorry"
  • he does say "I am going to take steps to make this better"
  • he names specific actions that he is proposing and ones he has already taken and
  • within a day, released a planned anti-bias training that included closing the stories for employees to attend.
Now I want you to think about the last public figure apology you heard or saw, the last apology you gave, and/ or the last apology you received. Did the person take full responsibility without explanation or trying to excuse it away? Did the apology include an "if" as in "if I hurt you, or "if I was offensive"? Did the apology include "I want to make sure this doesn't happen again" or "how can I make amends?"

Kevin Johnson is setting an example for his company and employees as well as the rest of us. Being an ethical organization begins at the top and it is not just a nice set of statements hung on the walls and posted in every employee's cubicle. It is not just about what will keep one from being sued or going to jail. It is a culture that walks its talk. It is a culture that expresses its values, integrity, and ethics in everything they do. It is expressed in their personnel policies, the way they treat their customers, the letting nothing - even profit - come before one's values.  It will cost Starbucks an estimated $12 million in lost revenue to close its store for an afternoon - take that in - $12 million!

We are not accustomed to this. We are accustomed to the Well Fargo disaster where employees opened accounts without permission of the account holder in the name of profit, our public officials who lie openly and boldfaced with no shame, companies that promise to stay in the United States, maintain jobs and then do rounds of layoffs and take those jobs overseas, all the various incidents with airlines, and nearly every industry has a story of the lack of ethics, the lack of integrity, in the name of the bottom line.

That is what makes his apology and actions so important. Is he perfect? No. Will this happen again, even at a Starbucks? Probably. What is important is that he is giving all of us an example of what leadership, ethical leadership is and looks like. We need many more leaders like this and we need to start being this way in our own lives.

It is hard to say "I am sorry" and tack on nothing else. Usually, we want to do something like "I am so sorry I am late, traffic was terrible (regardless of whether it was or not); I am sorry I forgot, I was xxxx." We want to explain ourselves, we want to say "I am not a bad person." "Please don't be mad at me." It is a habit and so common we may not even notice it. So I challenge you, the next time you need to apologize, try "I am sorry I did X or didn't do X or forgot X. I should not have done that or I should have ..." Then stop, just stop - don't explain, don't add anything. This is hard - really hard. Sit in the discomfort. I can't promise you that all will be well, but do pay attention to how this feels. Pay attention to the response you get from the other person. The difference between an apology that is truly an apology, that truly takes responsibility, is different, it is genuine. We are very habituated to giving excuses with our apologies, so stop and think as you start to say "I'm sorry" and practice not tacking anything on. If you are a parent, practice with your child: replace "I'm sorry I yelled and lost my temper but you were not cooperating and we were late" with "I'm sorry, I yelled, I lost my temper, yes I was frustrated that x y or z was not happening, that is not an excuse for yelling. I am sorry." What can you add? "I am going to count to ten the next time I feel myself getting ready to yell." "Next time, I think we both may need to walk away and try again in a few minutes." In this way, we model taking responsibility, which is one of the most important lessons we can teach our children. Yep, I mess up too and I am taking responsibility for it. Is it easy? Does it always feel good? No, and it is the right thing to do.

Imagine if in our homes, schools, faith communities, public offices, companies, we put ethics first, we put integrity first. We have homes, schools, faith communities, public officials and companies that do this. How are those places different? What if we began to demand from ourselves this level of integrity and then begin demanding it from our institutions? What if we refused to accept the empty apologies, the lovely worded statement of values that in no way matches the behavior of the organization? What if we rewarded the ethical organization?

So thank you, Kevin Johnson, We all have a great deal to learn from your example!