There is an old maxim that goes like this: “That man has the right string but the wrong yo-yo.” This saying applies to people whose hearts are in the right place but whose plans are not. In the case of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, his plan for promoting a national dialogue on race was a commendable goal, but his plan was so poorly conceived it was laughable. In fact, his addle-brained scheme to turn 18 year-old Baristas into race counselors revealed that Schultz is just another muddled-headed liberal who isn’t sure whether to scratch his watch or wind his behind. Like most liberals, Schultz appears to believe that talking about a problem is the same as solving it.
Up to now I have refused to even engage in the Starbucks brouhaha deeming it unworthy of comment. When I first heard of how Schultz planned to go about encouraging a national dialogue on race, I thought someone was kidding me. If there was a way not to encourage the desired dialogue, Schultz had proposed it. However, when asked by a group of business leaders to host a panel discussion on lessons that might be learned from Schultz’s self-inflicted fiasco, I decided to take a look back at his plan and summarize some of the ways he went astray as well as some things he might have done differently.
Schultz wanted to promote a dialogue on race. I get that. In fact his sentiment is understandable. We certainly need an open and honest dialogue on race in America. I have been saying the same thing since my formative years in the Jim Crow South of the 1950s and early 60s. Even as a youngster I wanted to talk with adults about race. My questions were the simple, straightforward kind a child asks—questions such as this: Why do Ricky and I have to go to different schools? Ricky was a friend and playmate who happened to be black. His mother was a maid for a family that lived several blocks over from my house in the more affluent part of our town.
Before we were old enough to go to school, Ricky and I found each other and did what young children will naturally do: played together and had a lot of good times. We quickly learned to steer clear of adults who weren’t happy about us playing together, but such adjustments are not difficult for children. However, when Ricky and I turned six years old, our days of playing together came to a sudden halt. He went to one school and I went to another. The adults I asked about this unwelcome turn of events were reluctant to answer my questions. Mostly they would brush me off my by claiming I would understand when I was older.
Where Howard Schultz went astray was in: 1) Forgetting that his first responsibility as CEO of Starbucks is to sell coffee; and 2) Poorly conceiving how he planned to promote the desired dialogue. Happy, repeat, loyal customers are the lifeblood of corporations such as Starbucks. Consequently, the number one job of the corporation’s CEO is to make sure that customers get what they want, how they want it, and when they want it. Correspondingly, the CEO must identify anything that stands in the way of not just customer satisfaction but customer delight and eliminate it. Introducing a new step into the purchasing process, a step that might well make customers uncomfortable is not just dumb—it is unacceptable. Asking customers to take time out of their busy schedules to discuss with complete strangers a subject that is deeply personal and fraught with interpersonal pot holes may be the dumbest idea in business since Ford produced the Edsel.
As CEO, Schultz forgot his first responsibility. Some questions his board of directors might consider asking Schultz are: 1) Was he approached by customers who suggested that discussing racial issues would enhance their Starbucks experience and lead them to buy more coffee? 2) Did business research show that promoting a dialogue on race would somehow increase Starbucks’ customer base or the satisfaction of existing customers? and 3) Will the dialogue idea open Starbucks up to inconvenient questions that might undermine its corporate image or decrease sales or both (e.g. How many minority Baristas and other employees does Starbucks employ? How many Starbucks restaurants are located in minority neighborhoods?). In fact, Shultz should have asked himself these questions and several others before hatching his hair-brained scheme in the first place.
If by chance Howard Schultz had the backing of his board of directors to promote a national dialogue on race, could a plan have been conceived that might have led to something worthwhile? Maybe, but one thing is certain: Schultz’s ill-conceived experiment was not that plan. Frankly, if the race-dialogue fiasco is viewed strictly from a business perspective, Howard Schultz should be fired. He committed the cardinal sin of a CEO: forgetting his responsibility to stock holders. If, improbably, Schultz had the blessing of his board of directors for his dialogue-on-race flop, the board members should resign. Corporate social responsibility is important, but no one asked Starbucks to be America’s self-appointed counselor on race relations. If Schultz wants Starbucks to be more socially responsible, let him find better ways to recycle the coffee cups his Baristas were supposed to write the word “race” on. Better yet, let him hire more minority employees or build more restaurants in minority neighborhoods. In fact, a good start to a dialogue on race would be for Howard Schultz to explain openly and honestly why Starbucks does not locate its restaurants in certain neighborhoods. I am not suggesting that he locate restaurants in crime-ridden ghettos, but at least he should be honest enough to admit why he doesn’t.
With the right plan, Starbucks might have been able to make a contribution to better race relations in America, but Howard Schultz did not have the right plan. So what was the Starbucks plan for promoting a dialogue on race? Was it to bring together people of good will of all races and have a mediated discussion in which the nefarious agendas of race hustlers and bigots alike are parsed and then rejected? No, that wasn’t the plan announced by Schultz. Was the plan is to convene a panel of people of various races who feel they have been discriminated against because of their race (including including white and Asian college students who feel they have been discriminated against by Affirmative Action)? No, that wasn’t Schultz’s plan either. Was the pan to ensure that all sides of the issue—including the views of black conservatives—would be given a fair hearing without anyone being called a racist or a sell-out? No, unfortunately this was not the plan either. So what was the plan devised by the CEO of Starbucks for establishing a nationwide dialogue on race?
By now the world knows that the plan devised by Howard Schultz was to ask customers who are already in a hurry and who—not yet having had their morning caffeine fix—are probably not in the best of moods anyway, to sit down and dialogue with complete strangers on one of the most sensitive issues in American society. Oh, and did I mention that the highly-qualified race-relations counselors who are going to mediate these open and honest dialogues are Starbucks Baristas, most of whose qualifications amount to being force-fed 12 years of leftwing multicultural propaganda in the public school system? Frankly, Schultz came up with a plan that made even less sense than asking Bill Clinton to lead a discussion on marital fidelity or Hillary Clinton to give seminars on email security. As for Schultz’s future prospects as a corporate CEO, he should probably start polishing up his resume and start practicing giving customers a big smile when he says, “Would you like fries with that?”
We certainly need an open and honest dialogue on race, but it won’t happen by writing “race” on the side of a coffee cup anymore than plastering one’s car with “Coexist” stickers will bring an end to war and international hostility in the world.