The new CEO of Starbucks, Laxman Narasimhan, officially took over for outgoing CEO Howard Schultz on March 20. Before assuming the new role, Narasimhan earned a barista certification and immersed himself in the company's operations. In a March 23 letter to employees, Narasimhan announced plans to work as a barista one half day per month to stay connected with the company's culture, customers and employees.
Narasimhan takes the reins at a time when the Seattle-based coffee chain faces mounting unionization efforts, with nearly 300 U.S. stores having voted for unionization. In February, Schultz told CNN he didn't believe a union "has a place in Starbucks," citing the company's recent efforts to improve salaries, benefits, training and working conditions for its "partners" (how Starbucks refers to employees).
Starbucks employee and union organizer Michelle Eisen expressed optimism that "Laxman Narasimhan will chart a new path with the union and work with us to make Starbucks the company we know it can be."
An 'Undercover Boss' Move
Narasimhan's decision to work as a barista once a month is reminiscent of the CBS TV reality show "Undercover Boss," where executives work undercover as a lower-level employee to examine the day-to-day operations of their company. The Starbucks CEO will not, however, be hiding his identity, which could pose its own challenges.
We asked leadership experts what they thought of Narasimhan's move to work the front lines.
"Making time for dialogue with front-line employees is crucial for any CEO's ability to be effective," said Tracy Lawrence, founder and CEO of The Lawrence Advisory, a leadership consulting firm. "This is especially true at companies like Starbucks that rely on employees to be the face of the brand."
Whitney Johnson, author of Smart Growth: How to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company (Harvard Business Review Press, 2022), said "There's a lot Narasimhan can learn about the company's employee and customer experiences by working the front lines. Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly did something similar back in 2012 when he spent his first week as CEO working at two stores in Minnesota. He went on to turn the struggling retailer around and became a highly-regarded CEO."
Authentic Leadership or PR Gimmick?
It's too soon to judge Narasimhan's CEO-as-barista initiative, Lawrence cautioned, advising observers to wait and see if he uses the information he's going to learn.
"It's authentic leadership only if Narasimhan actually uses the feedback he collects to inform his decision-making," she said. "Otherwise, his actions could be viewed as merely performative—akin to a photo opportunity." The Starbucks website features photos of Narasimhan smiling with other baristas during his in-store training.
Jeanne Meister, executive vice president of Executive Networks, an HR networking company, added that no matter Narasimhan's intentions for putting on the company's iconic green apron, "he won't actually be experiencing the life of an hourly worker. He's not dealing with the financial and emotional stresses that go with living paycheck to paycheck. He's not struggling with child care issues or driving an hour to work, worrying about the price of gas."
Actions Louder Than Words
To build trust with employees, Narasimhan will need to acknowledge and address the underlying tensions between management and labor. As an example of these tensions, a National Labor Relations Board panel found that Starbucks had illegally retaliated against two Philadelphia baristas for unionizing activities. In June 2022, Starbucks permanently closed a store in Ithaca, N.Y., after unionized baristas went on strike to protest unsanitary conditions.
"Employees may justifiably feel nervous about interacting with leaders, especially if they fear retaliation for openly sharing their views," said Chris Wainwright, director of marketing for HR platform provider Humi.
Narasimhan's CEO-as-barista experience may also depend upon local store managers, who could create a "Potemkin village" (defined as a "show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition" by Merriam-Webster) upon the new CEO's arrival.
"If the local management has prepared their teams to 'not embarrass' the store, then the CEO's feedback efforts will be doomed from the start," said Nora Burns, founder of The Leadership Experts, a workplace culture consulting firm. "After all, when the CEO leaves the store, the front-line employees are still at the mercy of their manager."
Henna Inam, director of The ExCo Group, a coaching and leadership advisory firm, offered Narasimhan some advice: "I'd ask him to first look inside himself to get clear about his own values and his personal 'why.' He should dig deep to understand what's driving his desire to be in the stores, working alongside the baristas, and what personal values he'd like to bring forth. Coming back to our intentions and values allows our actions to be aligned with our authentic self, no matter how stressful or mistrustful the external environment."
Building Trust: Time Will Tell
Narasimhan's move to work the front lines, by itself, won't resolve lingering tensions between Starbucks and its employees. "In the end, it all comes down to building trust," said Amy Jenkins, director of client strategy for theEMPLOYEEapp. "Sharing is a two-way street, so leaders need to share personal experiences, concerns and insights too, so employees don't feel they're the only ones exposed" to risk.
Joseph Romsey is a freelance writer based in Boston.