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The executive VP and chief partner resources officer at Starbucks puts employees first in line.
Early in his career,
Scott Pitasky worked as an investment banker on Wall Street during the greed-is-good decade of the 1980s. The job seemed like a natural enough fit for someone with a bachelor’s degree in finance and management, but Pitasky often felt dissatisfied.
“Careers teach you a lot—through the things you love and the things that you don’t,” he says.
Following stints as a consultant and working with his father in the family’s retail furniture business, he shifted his focus to HR in the early 1990s and hasn’t looked back. Now, his background in finance comes in handy in his current role as executive vice president and chief partner resources officer at
“I’m a good partner with our CFO,” he says.
Pitasky joined the chain in 2014 after serving in top HR roles at Microsoft and Amazon. He was attracted to Starbucks’ reputation of investing in its employees and was eager to apply the experience he had acquired during nearly three decades of work in human resources and organizational design. He considers his work supporting the company’s 300,000 global employees (whom the company calls “partners”) and their families the opportunity of a lifetime.
Family: Married; three sons.
Rock star moment: The five hours he spent talking to young people as they prepared for their interviews at the first hiring fair hosted by the
100,000 Opportunities Initiative last summer in Chicago.
Passionate pursuits: Family, fitness and sports (skiing, tennis, running).
Favorite coffee beverage: Any hot or cold drink made on “the Clover,” a special brewing system developed by Starbucks, with one raw sugar.
“I’ve never been at a place where HR is so central to the success and future of the company, and that’s because the partner experience is the core of the business,” he says.
Starbucks showcased that commitment in 2014, when it rolled out its innovative
College Achievement Plan, which offered full tuition for two years of online classes at Arizona State University to eligible employees. Pitasky led the program’s expansion in April of last year to cover a full four years of coursework—allowing partners to graduate from college debt-free and with no obligation to remain at the company.
“While we would love for our partners to all have long, fulfilling careers here at Starbucks,” he says, “if the result is them finding opportunities elsewhere, we see that as a version of our success.” So far, more than 5,000 students have enrolled and more than 40 have graduated. Starbucks is committed to helping at least 25,000 partners earn their degrees by 2025.
During his first week on the job, Pitasky spent time with baristas and other partners in several Seattle-area stores. Working in one of the chain’s 22,000 locations is part of orientation for all employees—even the top brass. Watching front-line employees in action was a valuable experience to him.
“Our partners really know our customers: their drinks, their names, their families,” he says. “There’s a relationship that is more than a commercial relationship. Our partners are part of their day.”
Pitasky tries to make sure employees have a positive work experience every day as well. As he puts it, “If we exceed the expectations of our partners, they will exceed the expectations of our customers.”
The Big Picture
Pitasky says Starbucks’ goal of creating a positive work experience for its employees is only part of the company’s loftier vision. He quotes Starbucks
CEO Howard Schultz, who often poses this question in public forums: “What is the role and responsibility of a public company?”
“The notion of creating a better world for our partners is really embraced by the company,” Pitasky says. “At a very high level, we are looking for ways to create and integrate economic and social value. It’s inspiring and incredibly challenging.”
Starbucks is the third company where Pitasky has worked directly with an organization’s founder. In the 10-plus years he spent at Microsoft, he collaborated often with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer when he served as corporate vice president of talent and organization capability. Before that, he oversaw Amazon’s HR function during a period of rapid growth, as the online retailer’s workforce swelled from 800 to 8,000 employees, consulting frequently with Jeff Bezos.
“You benefit from the people you’ve worked with, and there is an extraordinary passion and commitment and insight that founders have that is infectious,” he says of working with these legendary business leaders.
But perhaps the biggest influence on Pitasky’s career has been his family.
Although he has lived in the Seattle area for more than 20 years, his business outlook was forged by growing up in a merchant family in Philadelphia. His grandfather started a used furniture company, which his father expanded into a retail store.
“I worked there all during my youth,” Pitasky says. “The business set the rhythm for our family life. I saw that the core of the business was really the people who worked there: the truck drivers, cabinet makers, administrative staff, interior designers and salesmen.”
His father, who is in his 70s and still works in the furniture industry, visits Starbucks every day and dutifully reports back to Pitasky about his customer experience.
“He notices the things that are going well and tells me about things that could be improved,” Pitasky says. “I listen closely to all of his feedback.”
His paternal grandmother, who worked until she was 98 and died just shy of her 102nd birthday, is another personal hero: “I think her sense of purpose and connection to the community kept her around so long,” Pitasky says.
Starbucks’ innovative approach to benefits was one of the reasons Pitasky wanted to work there. The company was among the first privately owned U.S. employers to offer comprehensive health care coverage and stock options to part-time workers. In fact, last year Starbucks’ full- and part-time partners realized $210 million in pretax gains through company equity in the form of “Bean Stock.”
“I came here because of who we are and what we’re trying to do as a company,” he says.
He drives the company’s effort to constantly “look for ways to make incremental improvements in what we offer and to continue to innovate in how we invest in our partners.” Pitasky defines benefits broadly as “all of the things that contribute to the partner experience.”
He firmly believes the
College Achievement Plan does that by opening doors to opportunity. “In some cases, a partner may have wanted to continue their education but needed support,” he says. “In other cases, they may not have thought about it and this changed their mind.”
Regardless of whether and how workers use Starbucks’ benefits, Pitasky believes that employees are a very worthy investment. “We believe success is best when it’s shared,” he says. “We want to recognize that our partners are the soul of our culture and the engine that drives our business.”
As global chief partner resources officer, Pitasky is also leading the company’s efforts to hire
10,000 military veterans and active-duty spouses by 2018, a recruitment strategy designed to keep morale high and turnover low among a workforce of mainly hourly, low-wage workers.
In July 2015, Pitasky helped shape Starbucks’ role in addressing unemployment when the company announced it would join more than a dozen U.S.-based companies to launch the
100,000 Opportunities Initiative. The employer-led coalition is committed to creating employment pathways for thousands of young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not in school and not working.
Attending the first hiring fair in Chicago last summer was one of the highlights of his career. “I spent most of the day outside the interview room helping kids prepare. I let them practice with me,” he says. “Some of them found me afterward and gave me a hug.”
He remembers one applicant’s grandmother telling him that Starbucks was her granddaughter’s first-choice employer.
“Her granddaughter got a job offer. The grandmother told me the family had gone through some difficult times and that this job would change their lives. It was an incredible moment,” he recalls.
More than 600 job offers were made at the Chicago job fair among the 30 employers that participated. A second hiring fair was held in Phoenix in October, and a third was held in Los Angeles in February.
Last September, Pitasky and his team introduced yet another new benefit to the company’s 150,000 U.S. employees: a Spotify Premium subscription. The perk was so well-received that the company plans to extend it to partners in the U.K. and Canada.
Taking HR to the Next Level
Pitasky’s desire to have a bigger impact on his profession and accelerate the pace of change in the field of HR prompted him to work with Project
CHREATE (The Global Consortium to Reimagine HR, Employment Alternatives, Talent, and the Enterprise), an initiative aimed at shaping the future of the profession.
“Work is so important to us as human beings, and those of us in HR have this opportunity to change the fabric of work and jobs and to be a catalyst and connector of that change,” he says.
For example, he believes that technology will continue to have a huge impact on the evolution of the workplace, redefining when, where and how people do their jobs.
“The way that technology weaves in and out of work will look differently in five or 10 years,” he says. “Businesses have to invest in those changes now.”
The movement to redefine HR will involve rebuilding the way we educate and develop HR professionals, he explains, creating models that can be shared and resetting the expectations of stakeholders and leaders.
“There is so much opportunity to do less chasing and more leading.”
Desda Moss is managing editor of HR Magazine.
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