Kathy Sheridan: Chief executives should ring their own helplines

Starbuck’s chief plans to spend four hours a month serving coffee

In a letter to employees last week, the new chief executive of Starbucks announced that he plans to pull on the green apron and work alongside employees for four hours a month. And he expects his senior leaders to do the same as part of his mission to “refound” the cafe chain.

Laxman Narasimhan said he had done “immersive training” at dozens of Starbucks cafes, manufacturing plants and support centres in the previous six months.

He had also spent time “discussing the universal need for human connection” with the company’s former chief executive Howard Schultz and other executives.

As a venti-sized PR stunt, the chief executive-as-barista plan was brilliant, generating admiring coverage in the most prestigious business media. The only serious party poopers were Starbucks Workers United – “We don’t need executives to make drinks, we need them to respect our legal right to organise a union and have a real voice in the company” – and almost anyone who remembers the Coca-Cola’s iconic 1971 campaign with ranks of multicultural young people singing “I’d like to teach the world to sing/In perfect harmony”. Narasimhan’s CV includes a stint at PepsiCo.


And yet . . . the man might be on to something. It will surprise no-one to hear that chief executives in the main spend miniscule amounts of their most valuable resource – time – with their companies’ most valuable resource, the frontline workers. They spend even less with the funders of it all: the customers.

Chief executives of large companies spend on average just 6 per cent of their time with frontline workers, according to a long-term study by Harvard Business School academics Michael Porter and Nitin Nohria

This left the authors aghast. Chief executives face “a real risk of operating in a bubble and never seeing the actual world their workers face”, they noted. Still, it hardly requires a couple of bright Harvard academics to figure out that “direct human contact with the rank and file also grounds chief executives and helps them understand employees’ reality”.

Yet the same chief executives were “dismayed” when the study revealed how little time they spent with their actual customers: just 3 per cent , on average. That’s half the time they spent with workers, less than the time they spent with consultants. Nearly three-quarters of their time was spent in meetings.

Contrast that with the working habits of Bill George, leadership expert and former chief executive of the €90 billion medical devices company Medtronic. George’s target as chief executive was to spend – wait for it – 30 per cent of his time with customers and 30 per cent with frontline employees. This made him an “outlier”, as he put it.

No one who reads consumer complaints columns will be surprised to hear any of this.

We are so conditioned to scheduling vast swathes of time for a dreaded call to a “helpline”, so stewed in the soup of robot answering systems, so inured to being the “valued” call in a never ending queue, that we simply factor in the flagrant time-theft as the price of seeking help.

The conditioning was exposed on Monday when I had to make a long-deferred call to Bord Gáis Energy about a routine matter. When the call was answered a) immediately, by b) a human, who was c) both efficient and friendly, I was stunned into momentary silence. The whole exchange took about four minutes. What the hell just happened . . ?

The term “dogfooding” – ie the act of testing or using your own product or service , as in eating your own dogfood – was coined in the technology world of course but has since expanded to cover the daredevils who make a habit of testing their own service in frontline roles. Proponents include Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky and the co-founder of Lyft, John Zimmer, who has made a New Year’s Eve tradition of driving for the ride-hailing service.

Maybe Bord Gáis Energy does “dogfooding” and has discovered how not to drive customers insane. Maybe Narasimhan’s “dogfooding” will turn Starbucks into a haven of multi-layered human connections.

Dogfooding isn’t the whole answer of course. Michael O’Leary famously won kudos for flying with his own airline but it still took a private shareholder to tell him and Ryanair’s board 10 years ago that people were crying at boarding gates due its inhumane rigidity around the rules and that the non-executive directors hadn’t done enough to “bring to heel the macho culture in the company”. O’Leary accepted that the airline should “try to eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off”. Note: it took a shareholder not a customer.

A half day a month in a green apron will win kudos in the short term for Narasimhan too but it comes down to what he wants to learn from his four-hour engagement with a changing fleet of baristas.

We may infer that some of his motivation stems from ongoing strikes and walkouts, not to mention an order from a US National Labour Relations Board judge accusing Starbucks of “egregious and widespread” violations of federal labour law.

Still, Narasimhan’s commitment represents acceptance at some level, more a demi than a venti in Starbucks’ language, but a shift. The stupid thing is, it’s nothing new. Dogfooding was the late Feargal Quinn’s signature business strategy over 50 years ago, talking to Superquinn shoppers and helping out on the floor. He called it “crowning the customer”.

Today’s leaders could try that. Begin by ringing your own “helpline”. Please.