Starbucks has been making the headlines this week for all the wrong reasons. More on that in a minute. But let me make a more general assertion. The following has become so commonplace that we have become immune to it – “a highly visible consumer brand doing something awful and the leadership in the company scrambling to make amends.” And typically, they make it worse. Sound familiar. Usually, they come up with a moronic explanation or even worse dead silence and then have to recant and apologize? United (Dr. Wu), Intel (Spectre and Meltdown) …But not in the case of Starbucks.

For the uninitiated, let’s recount what happened. Two African-American men in a Starbucks in Philly were apparently deemed to be “dangerous” by the store manager and the police were summoned and they were handcuffed and walked out of the store to the incredulity of the other patrons. And this story went viral and most people were outraged. Starbucks could have reacted in the typical way every large public facing and visible corporation these days reacts – allow the legal and PR czars run rampant so there is dead silence or an incongruous explanation and any hint of morality or candor never sees the light of day. But surprisingly, that did not happen. Kevin Johnson – the CEO of Starbucks – who coincidentally I happen to know and have seen at close quarters as we crossed paths at Juniper Networks when he was the CEO prior to Starbucks – handled this with admirable poise and humility and translated this into an enduring lesson by shuttering 8000 stores for one afternoon for racial bias training – And even more impressively, has taken responsibility by spending three days on the ground, meeting the affected individuals and saying it is his responsibility to fix it. His video on CNN shows his deep contrition, outrage, and sadness at what transpired. When was the last time you saw a CEO be so open and candid on camera about a gaffe that he was ultimately responsible for? The larger question to ask ourselves is how and why did the company react so quickly to this incident? And what did it have that the other organizations did not? My own conclusion – not reported by the “real” or “fake” news – is values. Values that Starbucks espoused that were memorable, meaningful and measurable. Here they are directly from their website.

” Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.

Acting with courage, challenging the status quo and finding new ways to grow our company and each other.

” Being present, connecting with transparency, dignity, and respect.

” Delivering our very best in all we do, holding ourselves accountable for results.

Isn’t it obvious now that Kevin and the leadership team at Starbucks knew exactly what they had to do? The first principle “everyone is welcome” was violated! And they had to “act with courage”, “connecting with transparency, dignity, and respect” and “holding themselves accountable for results”. Bad stuff will happen to all organizations – large and small. It’s how they react to it that matters ultimately.

These are what values are for. Not for putting on a coffee mug and harassing employees to take an annual quiz to pass the HR checkbox. But defining them to be memorable, meaningful and measurable. And relying on these guideposts in times of crises to calm the existential challenges and steer the ship to calmer waters. And using the periods of quiet in the calmer seas to actually debate and refine them.

I confess for many years, nay decades, when I was in corporate America in organizations large and small, I never “got” values. They were alien to me and felt squeamish whenever we had to talk or discuss corporate values. That skepticism has vanished thanks to Kevin and Starbucks. Thank you, Kevin. Time for a Grande now.

But wait – there is more – I sent an email to Kevin (have not sent him anything in years and I doubt he even remembers me) that I would be writing a blog about this. I expected silence. He responded with a short “Thanks”. I am inspired. I need a refill now.



    Empathy, Education, Empowerment

    Mine is a typical Indian immigrant story: an Engineer who became an Engineering Manager, who grew antsy and segued into Product Management then rose to VP and SVP. During those years I fancied I was innovating and experimenting, but in reality I was wearing a corporate straitjacket. Constrained by my industry’s insular mindset, I became a slave to the definition of my job. Inevitably, I ended up dissatisfied. So, I did something unusual for a man in my position: I stopped to reflect. I searched my life and talents for what was fulfilling and had purpose. I discovered I enjoyed storytelling to promote understanding. I loved mentoring and helping people become the best version of themselves. Importantly, I realized I was still passionate about the tech industry, particularly the issues surrounding privacy and ethics. Today, I’m pursuing my passions. I like to think of myself as an accelerator of technology and positivity. I’m the COO of UberKnowledge, bringing cybersecurity awareness and training to demographics that are underrepresented in the industry. I speak at conferences highlighting the need for a sharper focus on the ethics surrounding the technology industry.  I write articles and blog posts using analogy to simplify technology trends and complex topics like AI and IoT. I host podcasts with CISOs and other industry experts. The purpose of these is not to sell snake oil or products but to bridge the chasm between security vendors and customers so that the real problems can be solved to make the world a safer place. Underpinning all of these efforts is my belief that life’s purpose for us all is simply to connect. And the best way to do that is through generous and positive gestures.