March 29, 2015

What line will you cross to begin a conversation?

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Where’s your “do not cross” line in corporate social responsibility? What taboo would you break to begin a conversation?

coffee starbucksTwo weeks in, and amid the din of criticism, it appears Starbucks is ending its attempt to start a conversation around race. Deep pockets afford the opportunity for Starbucks to use its venues as a national forum. After the initial splash of activity, look for a sustained phase while the company continues to attempt to engage its customers in a conversation it considers crucial on many levels.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz states "Conversation has the power to change hearts and minds. “ Indeed it does, but is there a line in culture that says “Do not cross. I’m not here to have your conversation, I’m just here to buy a Triple, Venti, Half Sweet, Non-Fat, Caramel Macchiato?”. Perhaps the drink names are so long, they scarcely leave room for meaningful conversation.

Let’s be real: we go to a coffeeshop because it’s familiar, friendly, and part of our community. Perhaps we hope to be welcomed, recognized, and accepted. We all have a voice, and how we choose to raise it will contribute to the conversations around the causes we care most about. Where we choose to have those conversations should be of our own choosing, yet it takes courage to raise uncomfortable issues in places where we are most comfortable.

Are race and diversity the kind of topics that one does not have in polite conversation?

Starbucks is to be commended not only for its courage to start a conversation about diversity in our culture; but also for seeking to inject meaning into its corporate culture—a purpose around which its Partners (Starbucks’ own term for its employees) can rally.

When Gallup reports that only 30% of employees are engaged at work, it’s clear that not every employee will share the same affinity for the causes that leadership support. Some will not care at all. Some will care more.

One of the key takeaways in the Gallup report was communications focused: "Too few “brand ambassadors” – According to the report, “Only 41% of employees felt that they know what their company stands for and what makes its brand different from its competitors’ brands.”  As always, such findings point to the need for more and clearer communication from senior management to all organizational levels.” (Forbes)

Clearer communication, yes; and perhaps a choice of words that may be more conversational for customers. Would #diversitymatters have been a more thoughtful choice of words?

Too often, senior management may tell employees what causes should matter most to them. You can’t simply communicate what matters. Your leadership character values and culture must demonstrate what matters. It's a challenge to weave purpose with profit, while not exploiting the people who are a key part of your organization.

The coffeeshop is a place for conversation. Starbucks can’t force their customers to talk about it (one of my colleagues, a young man with extensive experience in inner city ministry, commented

"My main concern at Starbucks is whether I can get my Frappacino in under two minutes. I don't want a twenty something sharing Starbucks' perspective on race with me. Have them come spend some time here with me on the streets in the inner city, and and then we'll talk race and diversity."

While Starbucks trains their partners to be able to discuss race, their role may simply be as a catalyst. At least they’re starting the conversation, and raising their voice.

What conversation would you like to start? What line would you be willing to cross in order to become a catalyst for change?

What will it take for you be courageous?

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