Inside collaboration sessions with Starbucks ceo Howard Schultz and partners

People sitting in chairs in a semicircle having a conversation

Partner feedback from the events will inform the company’s future investments in its people and business operations

In his first week back as Starbucks ceo, Howard Schultz visited multiple cities to kick off a series of collaboration sessions designed to empower partners (employees) from all levels to help co-create solutions and reimagine the company’s future. 

During stops in Phoenix, Chicago, Long Beach and San Jose – partners offered Schultz and company leaders a taste of the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of their experiences during a disruptive era within and outside of Starbucks walls.  

Some of the hot topics emerging from the sessions include training, culture, technology, safety and wanting to rebuild greater connection with each other. In Long Beach, Schultz shared an upsetting experience that illustrates his concerns with union organizers intentionally and aggressively sowing divisions within the company while “attempting to sell a very different view of what Starbucks should be.” 

What partners are telling us in early collaboration sessions:  

“I think the admittance that Starbucks is pointing the finger at themselves and saying ‘We’re sorry, and we’re going to do better’ is THE first step in a lot of partners regaining trust.”  

“I am cared for, [so] I can go now out and care for others... that’s what I want to do.” 

“Our company needs to evolve.”  

“We say we value our people, we value our customers, we value our culture. And yet we don’t have time for any of it, we don’t have time to prioritize it.”  

“I thoroughly believe that if we build up the partners, the partners will build up the customers.”  

 “[T]he only thing that gave me joy in the midst of everything going on outside of work was being that light to people and to drive out the fear with our love for one another.” 

“We can have this great vision but if our partners don’t see it, it’s going to be extremely hard.”  

“You’re here, you’re listening to us. I mean you, literally are here in person, so that makes me super excited and proud. It’s really special and important.” 

“The biggest change we can make, is somehow being able to slow down our work while still being able to deliver on everything we are doing right now.”  

“I think some of the people who are pushing for some of these other things don’t understand, haven’t worked out there for other companies. They don’t understand that Starbucks paid them more than what legally they had to do. They fed us. They gave us beverages every day. They took care of us.”  

 “I can make somebody feel they belong. I can make someone feel welcome. Even if they don’t have that at home, or whatever their situation is outside. We have the power to do that in the four walls that we have.”  

Anatomy of a collaboration session 

Collaboration sessions are intimate, honest and authentic conversations among partners from all levels of the company. In this space, all participants – including our ceo, store managers, assistant store managers and baristas – are on equal footing. With a facilitator in the room to help connect ideas, Schultz is also joined by a rotating list of company leaders. The feedback we receive from partners will play a critical role in informing our investments in partner experiences and business operations.  

As you can see in the visuals from the first few sessions, these groups are small and include 20 to 30 partners.  

  • No laptops 
  • Chairs arranged in a circle or semi-circle 
  • No tables 
  • Post-Its, pens and name badges for capturing ideas 

Each session begins with a coffee tasting followed by three sections:  

Opening. A “Partner Playback” poster is set up in the space where the session is taking place. One column outlines what we’ve heard; a second column plays back what must be addressed with partners.  

Partner-led ideas. Participants help to surface ideas and bring our next chapter to life through moving their chairs to face the wall in a semi-circle. They write their answers on stickies and post to a large scroll of paper adhered horizontally to the wall. Dots are used to upvote and discuss.  

Closing. The group reflects on the day’s questions. Schultz and senior leaders reiterate that partners are at the forefront of reimagining the company’s future. Feedback from partners will be incorporated into an announcement on May 3.  

Why are we doing this? 

The collaboration sessions follow Schultz’s announcement on April 4 that Starbucks would immediately stop stock repurchases and instead invest more significantly in our partners and our stores. He’s been vocal and transparent about what he views as missteps the company has made in recent years.  

Already, the first collaboration sessions are proving to be an incredibly rich and impactful tool for reinforcing the culture and the promise of Starbucks. Those partners who have contributed so far – and the thousands more whom company leaders plan to meet in the coming weeks – will be seen, heard and treated as collaborators.  

Together, we are co-creating a new future for Starbucks based on inclusion, building trust, and always doing what’s right.  

Photos by Joshua Trujillo