business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

I continue to be simultaneously amused and appalled by the relentless beatification by Starbucks of its once and current CEO Howard Schultz, who this week unveiled a new product line - various coffee drinks infused with olive oil - that he suggested was the result of an epiphany that he had while traveling in Sicily.

Now, let's put aside - for a moment - the fact that in the initial press release, Schultz's name was mentioned almost as much as Oleato, the name of the new line.

Let's put aside the fact that this is being positioned Schultz's gift to Starbucks as he steps down yet again from the CEO job.  He's being replaced in just a few weeks, but the incoming CEO's name is hardly anywhere to be found in the Oleato materials. (What the hell is his name again?)  As I said here before, Schultz could've allowed the new fellow (what the hell is his name again?) to announce the new line, gain some street cred, and start out strong … but that would've required a level of grace and lack of ego apparently foreign to Howard Schultz.

The Eye-Opener here comes from yesterday's Wall Street Journal about Oleato, which starts out by describing the epiphany:

While vacationing with his family in Sicily last summer, Mr. Schultz said, he was introduced through a mutual friend to Tommaso Asaro, the fourth-generation owner of Sicily-based olive-oil producer Partanna Holdings. Mr. Asaro told Mr. Schultz that Mediterranean countries have a tradition of drinking olive oil for health, and Mr. Schultz started doing the same, and experimenting with adding it to coffee grounds before brewing.

Mr. Schultz said he told Starbucks Chief Marketing Officer Brady Brewer that he believed infusing coffee with olive oil could be transformative for Starbucks. 

Okay.  Nothing wrong with a little myth-making.  I like a good narrative as much as the next person.  But here's the money shot, in which Schultz actually disparages his CMO:

"'There was some skepticism, naturally,” Mr. Schultz said."

Really?  What kind of leader says that about any employee, much less someone with whom he shares the c-suite?

There was "natural" skepticism?  Why?  Because how could anyone expect to keep up with the insights and genius of Howard Schultz?

That may be exactly what he's thinking, because Schultz also has made the point that while remaining on the board of directors, he expects to continue overseeing the Oleato project.  Could this be because he believes that and Schultz-less Starbucks actually lacks the vision, imagination, and operational bench strength necessary to make this rollout work?

Because that's sure as hell what it sounds like.

There's nothing wrong with being an active, engaged board member - but if you do it right, you are supporting the brand and the people in a way that doesn't make it about you.  You are trying to bring out the best in other people, not demonstrate that you are the best of all people.

I hate to say it - because I truly believe that Howard Schultz has been responsible not only for the development and evolution of an iconic American brand, but for the essential creation of a big-growth industry - but every time he opens his mouth these days, Schultz makes himself look smaller, the personification of an id-driven executive who can't let go, can't let anyone else get credit, and can't accept that in the end, his name may not be as important as that of the brand he has led for all these years.

It is an Eye-Opening example of things CEOs should not do, should not say, should not think, and should not feel.