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Born to Thrive: Personal playbook tips from former CEO of Starbucks

Learn how to build a successful culture with happy employees.

"As the world continues to evolve at light speed, companies today have a choice. Either be disrupted or create the disruption and become the leader in whatever industry you are currently in or where you want to go, with a level of customer service that exceeds all your competition.”
- Jim Donald

In 2019, Jim Donald, the former CEO of Starbucks, was in a coffee roastery in Seattle.

A lady walked over to him: “You’re Jim Donald aren’t you?”

“Yeah I am,” he says.

She says: “I - and those three people right there - want to  give you this coffee bag.”

“But what’s it for?” He asks.

“Jim,” she says, “in your first week at Starbucks you came to the Kent Roasting Plant at 3am in the morning to see us. You’re the only one that ever did that. And because you wanted your staff to do it, you held a staff meeting two weeks later at 3am and served us barbecue because it was our lunch time. We’ve never forgotten that and we wanted to say thank you.”


That - in the words of Jim Donald - is how you build a culture.

This is just one of the many heart-warming, uplifting and downright inspiring stories Jim told during Episode 3 of The WFM Show where he covered everything from creating a culture of caring to the power of storytelling.

When Jim speaks, the room listens, and he has that rare ability to inspire people as easily as breathing. The words ‘must-watch’ are thrown around far too often but this episode falls firmly into this category - it’s essential viewing for anyone who wants to get better at business, and who wants to be a better human while doing it.

Drawing on a distinguished career that saw him lead companies like Starbucks, Pathmark Supermarkets and Extended Stay Hotels - alongside being named one of the “Top 25 CEOs in the World” by The Best Practice Institute - Jim shared key leadership components from his personal playbook that led him to legendary success.

The highlights included:

1. Care more than others think possible or necessary

This is Jim’s motto in life and he lives it every single day. 

“Don’t ever be bigger than the front line,” he says. “If you're bigger than the front line, not only will you personally fail as a leader, your legacy will be crushed and your business will be bad. Why not show 98% of the workforce - those on the frontline - that you care by respecting what they do?”

By creating a culture of caring, Jim says you speak to the heart rather than the head. This creates a bond and an emotional connection which keeps employees engaged.  

He adds: “If you talk to your employees’ brains, they might get it. But if you talk to their hearts, you can be sure they’ll remember it.”

2. Pick up the trash

Part of being a great leader, Jim says, is doing the things that others don’t and going beyond what people expect. 

He was one of ten candidates interviewed for the role of CEO at Starbucks. And he was the only one out of the other candidates who, when touring the store, picked up the trash. For Jim, it was second nature. For the board at Starbucks, it showed how much he cared and how he was prepared to go the extra mile.

Jim says: “If you really want to be successful in life, take the job no one else wants. Pick up the trash. In other words, don't ask somebody to do something that you would not do yourself, this is so important in leadership.”


3. Encourage risk-taking with the freedom to fail

“People don’t want to be a headcount,” says Jim. “They want to make their heads count.” 

In three years time the majority of the workforce will be made up of Millennials and Gen Z. More than any group before, this is a generation who want to be heard and valued.

And for this to happen they have to be encouraged to take risks and given the freedom to fail, argues Jim.

He says: “When you can create this culture of caring you're telling people, it's okay to make mistakes and how much more can you show you care than that?” 

4. Tell stories

Stories are our oldest way of learning and understanding. Jim says being able to tell a compelling story - whether that’s to colleagues, employees or even investors - is what will set you apart. 

People retain, remember and engage with stories that stick in their heart. Have a story that resonates with people and success will follow.

5. Be curious

Jim says every single day we should all be as curious, scared, excited and full of the possibilities of life as we are on the first day of being a freshman. 

If you do this, you ask more questions, you listen harder, you learn more and you show respect to the people around you.

“Be curious,” he says, “go to places you’ve never been before . Give up home court advantage and step outside of your comfort zone. This is what the best leaders do.”

For more insight, stories and inspiration, you can watch the full episode and hear Jim speak for yourself here and, if you missed out on previous episodes, you can catch them all here.


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