The Starbucks 'Kool-Aid,' and why it works

They figured it out early. Starbucks has been a pioneer in ‘employee engagement’ before it was a ubiquitous buzz word. How? Why? It’s just coffee, right? As a lifelong fan and former ‘partner’ (their title for employees) I will share an experience briefly in an effort to show that it can be done and you can replicate it. 

I started my 11 year career with the coffee giant as a front line barista while finishing my bachelors degree at Colorado State University. My first day began with a standard tour and introduction to my co-workers. Their overly friendly and welcoming demeanor caught even my 21 year old, optimistic self, off guard. Surely they can’t be this happy all the time making just above minimum wage, waking up at 3, 4, 5am and dealing with sometimes ridiculously crabby people who would get inordinately upset with the wrong numbers of pumps in their caramel macchiato. But they did remain happy, welcoming and genuine throughout my 11 years. But back to the first day, there was a pivotal moment when I started to think that this place was different. There was sign up sheet on the backroom wall for a trail building volunteer activity that coming weekend. 3 important things struck me: 

  1. My manager was genuinely excited to tell me about Starbucks’ Make Your Mark program where the company would pay $10 for every hour I volunteered to the benefitting non-profit. Now my lack-luster trail-building skills could make a much greater impact. 
  2. The whole damn store was signed up to volunteer! It had become a bidding war about who would have to stay behind and run the store while everyone else climbed up a hill, in the middle of summer and dug a trail. This was not only a chance for these friends to hang out, they could also give back which clearly made them all feel good. 
  3. The co-workers that I had met just 3 minutes prior immediately started asking me if I was going to be able to make it and join them on this outdoor adventure. 

Now at face value, you may be reading this thinking, ‘what’s the big deal? We have volunteer opportunities in our company. We welcome new hires. Our employees hang out together outside of work, willingly.’ But the special sauce of this and so many other experiences that I had at Starbucks was this- they valued their employees as humans and knew what motivated them: 

  • give them the ability to be awesome at their job
  • create an easy and impactful way for them to give back to the community
  • allow, encourage and have systems in place for people to create lasting, genuine friendships 

I saw those foundational elements displayed again and again at Starbucks. And while they’re not perfect, as one of my favorite friends and co-workers once said, ‘they have perfect intentions,’ and that my friends, is what I believe has made them one of the best brands in history.