‘Today is Day 1’: Starbucks retail leaders are challenged, inspired at leadership event

The District Manager+ Leadership Experience, attended by 2,000, marks a pivotal moment in the Starbucks Reinvention plan.

Anne Gamache, a Starbucks district manager in Alaska, thinks a lot about wait times: specifically, how long it takes for cars to get in and out of the drive-thru lanes at each of the 13 Starbucks stores in her portfolio. And though there might be practical reasons – like the snow and bigger cars in her home state – Gamache is also a bottom-line, results-oriented person who’d like to move customers through faster.

“Seventy percent of the business is drive-thrus. We have long wait times,” Gamache said. “I can make all the excuses… but it does come back to instilling belief in my (store) partners (employees) that we can navigate our own complex unique situation because we are the business owners.”

That theme – ownership of the business and accountability to results – headlined the Starbucks District Manager+ Leadership Experience in Seattle this week, a two-day gathering of almost 2,000 company retail leaders from across the U.S. and Canada. They were charged with bringing to life Starbucks Reinvention, a plan to invest billions into the business and modernize the Starbucks experience for both partners and customers.

“The future of Starbucks is sitting in this room,” said Howard Schultz, Starbucks chief executive officer, at the closing session at the Seattle Convention Center ballroom, after attending breakout sessions alongside retail partners.

‘The time to reset is now’

The event marked a shift, from Reinvention as a concept to implementing the first stages of execution. Starbucks leaders had spent the last six months listening to partners across the country and co-creating with them possibilities for a better future, amidst global economic uncertainties, the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing labor and staffing issues.

“Gatherings like the one we’re having right now, we don’t have these types of gatherings often,” said Sara Trilling, executive vice president, Starbucks North America. “We come together like this at our most pivotal moments when it’s time to break from what’s behind us and connect and lock arms on what’s ahead.

“What we’re talking about in terms of Reinvention is not a tweak. It’s a leap,” Trilling said on Wednesday, the first day of the conference. “A reset of the way we’ve been doing things will require a tremendous amount of courage. The time to reset is now. Today is Day 1 for all of us.”

District managers play critical and unique role at Starbucks

Jon Liechty, Starbucks senior vice president of operations services, told attendees, “If that accountability makes you squirm in your seat a little, know you are not alone. We want those good butterflies, the sweaty palms that come with stretch goals that require our very best to achieve.”

Through interactive workshops, discussions and reflection time, and access to top executives including Schultz and Laxman Narasimhan, Starbucks incoming chief executive officer, the goal was to increase the company’s leadership capacity, especially at the district manager (DM) level. Sessions covered topics like digital body language, the art of leadership, different relationship styles and having hard conversations.

DMs, who made up about three-fourths of the attendees, play an important and unique role at Starbucks. They operate at the day-to-day epicenter of the company’s strategic initiatives, the customers’ needs and the store partner experience – all while being responsible for driving bottom-line business results like revenue and faster drive-thru wait times. On average, each district manager is responsible for running a multi-million dollar business and overseeing about 400 partners.

Bringing inspiration to stores

For Gamache, the company’s well-being is personal. She started at Starbucks as a barista 18 years ago, after having immigrated to the U.S. from Germany.

“I’ve always been invested. I have that responsibility. I feel that,” she said. “I never thought that this was going to be my career. I walked in barely speaking English 18 years ago, and the partners that took me in, it was life changing. I want that to be the experience that my partners have (in the stores I manage).”

Saro Alamian also started as a Starbucks barista after graduating high school. He moved from Syria when he was 12 years old. Now a district manager in Burbank, California, Alamian said the leadership experience conference came at just the right time, after several tough years as a leader.

“There’s nothing really inspirational about COVID protocols, modified hours, the operational stuff,” Alamian said. “When you have to go through all of that stuff, it drains you from being able to be inspirational. So the conversations (here at the leadership experience) were exactly what I needed. That inspiration is going to translate to my leaders (back in California).”

“There were leaders before us, who were in our position right now, and they had to make decisions and they had to be courageous and be inspirational,” Alamian said. “And that built the baseline for who we are today, and today is what’s going to build the baseline for who we are 20 years from now. We’re the ones navigating through the challenges.”

Lorena Nunez, a district manager in Boston, joined Starbucks as a store manager in 2007. When the financial global recession hit soon after, she said she was “in a threat state” just trying to learn the business.

“Whereas this time around, I play a really big role in the reinvention of our company and where we want to go,” Nunez said. “We’ve been here before and we know we can do it again and we can build ourselves up.”

She said that nine out of 10 store managers (in her portfolio) have been in their roles less than a year, “so how do we help them understand and live our mission and values? We can’t accomplish anything without our baristas, store managers, shift supervisors, all the partners in the store. So, now I’m coming back with, how am I living out our mission and values for them? They need to feel seen, heard, and they need to feel valued, because they are.”

‘This is your company’

Founder Howard Schultz closed the event with a tough-love, tell-the-truth “family meeting.” He talked about how the company grew from 11 stores and 100 employees in 1987, while building a different kind of company. It was the first privately owned corporation at the time to offer stock options to every single employee and comprehensive health insurance, even to part-time workers.

But after 51 years of growth, success is not an entitlement, he told the audience at the closing session.

“The future of Starbucks is whether or not we’re going to understand what is at stake,” Schultz said. “Starbucks coffee is not entitled to our customers business unless we earn it.

“I sat here for two days, so proud, feeling so fortunate to be part of this, so fortunate to see the history of the company unfold this way. So fortunate and so blessed to be part of a company that has the quality of people in this room. I know how hard it’s been to build Starbucks. I know the sacrifice that so many people have made to get us to this point. And I also know what’s possible.

“This is your company. Protect it. Preserve it. Enhance it.”

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New Starbucks merch collaboration celebrates togetherness and joy in the everyday