Starbucks Leadership Lessons – Cliff Burrows stories.
The following is an excerpt from a book that I started writing about Starbucks. This was the “Cliff Burrows” section.
As a Starbucks fan living right in Seattle, once in a blue moon I’ve run into Starbucks leadership. I want to share some thoughts on Cliff Burrows.
Some time ago, a store partner told me a story about meeting Cliff in Seattle at the 4th and Seneca Starbucks. So the story goes, some meeting was supposed to happen and Cliff arrived early. There were cigarette butts just outside the store’s entrance. The store didn’t have extra partners to run outside and sweep the cigarette butts. Cliff, seeing this, grabbed the broom and dustbin and went outside and in a few minutes, swept them all up. I had heard this story and thought, maybe there was some exaggeration going on, always a little amazed at it. Now you’re hearing the story like 3rd-hand, which at this point fits somewhere into the legal definition of “hearsay”. 😉
I’ve heard partners tell me how much they’ve enjoyed meeting him. I will admit, before I met him I was pretty suspicious of him. I’m sure it was the Welsh accent that put my guard up. 😉
On either May 22nd or 23, 2010, (I don’t remember which day) I met Cliff Burrows in person. I was hanging out at 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea. We made nothing more than small talk. I told him how much I had liked the product “Sorbetto” and I was disappointed that it never launched nationally. “Yes, it was a ‘good product,’” he agreed. I knew that a product could be delicious, yet still not be the right recipe for the stores to launch nationally. I knew that Sorbetto had never been a right fit for Starbucks. It tasted delicious, yes. But the machine it was dispensed from looked like it fit in a 7-11, not a Starbucks. It sent the wrong message. And it was stiffly priced for a very small portion. This high-priced dessert wasn’t a hit when it was launched at the height of the recession, and many people were tightening their belts. And I had heard that the Slurpee-like machine was labor-intensive to clean. Still, I liked how it tasted.
Much later, when I read Onward, I could see that some of my gut intuitions about Sorbetto had been right on. Not the right timing to launch it, and not really workable despite its “yumminess” factor.
On that day in May of 2010, I was standing near a long-term partner, in a group of people. Cliff was near me, to my left. A partner who has been with Starbucks more than a decade was across from me. There were a few others around, whom I did not know. I was only making small talk with the person across from me, and somehow, a little coffee got spilled on the floor. I am not even sure where it came from. I had left mine back on the table. The small coffee spill on the floor was directly between me and the long-term partner standing across from me. In an instant, Cliff reached down and wiped it up with the napkin in his hand. It took all of five seconds, and there was nothing dramatic made of it. For like two seconds, I was staring at the back of Cliff’s head as he was cleaning the spill (just a few drops of coffee). The coffee spill was gone.
The thought occurred to me that it was much more powerful that he just got the coffee spill in five seconds, rather than barking out orders that someone needed to clean up a few drops of coffee.
After meeting Cliff Burrows at 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, I didn’t run into him again for a long time. My routine as an attorney in Seattle doesn’t overlap much with the President of Starbucks Americas. Starbucks executives are constantly flying all over the world, and generally speaking, you can find me right here in Seattle.
It was nearly one year later – on April 30, 2011 – that I again saw Cliff Burrows. Starbucks has always been involved in community service, but in April 2011, had a big push with large-scale marquee community service events around the world. The inspiration for these events was the kick off of the 40th Anniversary celebrations. What better way to celebrate forty years of success than to give back to communities?
Starbucks coordinated these large community service project events in London, Shanghai, Vancouver B.C., Toronto, New York, and Seattle. Both customers and Starbucks partners were welcome to join in and help do work to improve and clean up local communities.
On April 30, 2011, I went to the Seattle big community service event. I ran into Kris Engskov again. We made small talk and I told him that there were partners who had flown up from Texas to be a part of this event. I wasn’t sure if he already knew that, but before the volunteering event began, he met with almost every single one of the Texas partners.
Before the community service began, there were presentations on a stage by leadership talking about community service, what it means for Starbucks and what it means for Seattle. The presentations included Kris Engskov, City of Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, and Cliff Burrows. Kris played with the audience and said, ‘Does anyone know who came the furthest to be here today?’ And then he announced the group of long-distance partners from Texas who had come up for this event. (One of whom was the really fabulous partner from my 2009 trip to Texas).
At this April event, the way it worked was that you signed up for a project by category. Some people signed up for “outdoor yard work” and there were a number of projects that involved “painting.”
When I got to the event, one of the first people I ran into was a store manager in downtown Seattle, who has been an 8+ year partner, and has known me for years. He was carrying a sign with a number, indicating that he was a team leader of a group. He instructed me, “Melody, go sign up for the “outdoor painting” project to be in my group. I did just that.”
It didn’t take long, and soon the group of 600 volunteers was split out into many small teams of people. Some working at a number of various sites weeding a nearby park, some doing indoor painting, and my group which was “outdoor painting.”
We were given a very large number of wood panels and told to paint them in bright colors. We split up into teams of about 3 people per wood panel. I happened to be standing near two other customers – a married couple – who needed a third body, and so we worked as group on our painting project.
We grabbed a wood panel, and then looked for an open spot. I tried to take our panel to an area where I saw my friends from Texas, but the couple I was with thought that site looked too crowded. Outnumbered, we plopped our wood panel down in a different spot on the very large playground, and got to work.
We picked out brushes, and very brightly colored paints, and then had to figure out if any one of the three of us had any artistic talent at all. The answer really was “No!”
We had been painting for perhaps ten minutes when I realized that teammates in this project had picked a spot immediately adjacent to Cliff Burrows and Kris Engskov, who together, were working on painting a panel. The other two customers didn’t recognize the two executives.
I saw Cliff on his hands and knees hard at work, painting a panel flat on the ground, along with everyone else who had turned out for this event and had signed up for this particular project.
My gut intuition had been confirmed. Cliff Burrows has no problem getting his hands dirty and doing real work.
There was, in fact, one more episode, where I saw Cliff Burrows and Kris Engskov, hard at work doing community service. As most Seattleites know, every July 4th, thousands of people crowd into Gas Works Park in Seattle for a good a view of fireworks over Lake Union. And on July 5th, they’ve left a bit of a mess.
On July 5th, Starbucks volunteers cleaned up the mess left behind at the park, and in the surrounding neighborhood. I met up with a downtown Seattle store manager, and we picked up trash. It wasn’t all that fun, but I don’t think picking up litter is ever really intended to be “fun.” We had coffee beforehand (supplied by Starbucks), and there was a small lunch afterward too.
After about an hour and a half (or maybe up to two hours) of picking up litter, Kerri (the store manager I had come to the event with) and I walked back to the main sign up area to get some lunch. The cleanup work had gone very fast due to the very large turnout of volunteers.
I had been at the event for several hours with Kerri, but it wasn’t until close to the lunch hour that I ran into Cliff Burrows and Kris Engskov. July 5, 2011, had been a bright and sunny day with weather in the mid 70s. It was perfect out. Cliff and Kris both looked like they had worked up a sweat. They both carried huge, completely full bags of litter. I realized that together they had picked up quite a bit of trash. It put my barely half-way full bag to shame. I was literally embarrassed at how small my bag of trash was compared to each of theirs. They must’ve been working their tails off.
We made small talk for a minute, and I kiddingly told the two executives that they should come visit my favorite stores more often, and explained that I was at the event with a favorite downtown Seattle store manager.
And again, my gut intuition was confirmed that Cliff wouldn’t ask his partners to do something he wouldn’t do himself. It was the nebulous feeling I had been left with before after meeting him at 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea Starbucks, and on this day, it was confirmed again. As to Starbucks, community and volunteerism is definitely part of the foundation of Starbucks and everyone is encouraged to participate from top on down. It makes no difference if you’ve got the title President of Starbucks Americas (Cliff), or if you’re a brand new barista.
One might be wondering why I am not mentioning Howard Schultz. It had been in the news that Howard had recently had an elective procedure on his neck. It would have been quite a surprise to see him at this event given that he was likely still resting up from surgery (and given that he seems to always be traveling, I didn’t think he’d be there anyway.)
Since that event, I have at times wondered if all corporate executives are like this? I have absolutely no basis of comparison. While I do live in Seattle, I wouldn’t recognize a Boeing executive or a Microsoft executive (well, I might recognize Bill Gates only because he’s in the news often) or an Amazon.com executive. That question – is community service common for other large corporations, and even to the level of commitment that executives join in? – is a question that remains unanswered to me. Would you ever see Jeff Bezos picking up trash at Gas Works? For me, this commitment to community service at literally every single level of the organization is one of many things separates Starbucks from many other corporations. It’s leadership by example.
I got about 30,000 words into the book and realized that I didn’t have enough to say about Starbucks to fill a whole book. I can write a blog, but a book is a whole different story, pardon the pun. Unless someone writes it for me, I doubt we’ll see a StarbucksMelody.com book. My apologies to Cliff Burrows for putting him on the spot in this blog post. I really do apologize!
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