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Coffee king’s ‘grande’ shot of reality

by on
in Best-Practices Leadership

In 2008, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz just knew he had a product that would ­re-energize the company’s tired sales. Called “Sorbetto,” it was a twist on a frozen-­yogurt drink. It would be the next Frappuccino, he thought.

So, with “Trenta-size” ambition, he had 300 Starbucks locations decked out in pink to promote the new drink. He shipped in ingredients from Italy. He primed investors.

But customers didn’t like the sugary con­coction, and neither did baristas, who had to spend an hour and a half cleaning the Sorbetto equipment at the end of their shifts. A few months later, Schultz killed the product.

“Sorbetto, we did too quickly, and that was my fault,” Schultz says.

A year later, in 2009, he had yet another promising product ready for full-scale introduction—Via, an instant coffee. Some of his executives, though, worried that a big rollout might flop. One of them told Schultz he should delay Via and introduce it in just two cities before going national.

Schultz conceded.

The old Schultz would have overruled his executives. But this was the new Schultz, humbled by the Sorbetto experience and a crushing recession that forced him to shut 900 shops and drastically cut costs.

It turned out to be the right choice. After testing Via in Chicago and Seattle, Starbucks tweaked its rollout plan. Instead of giving away samples, for example, the plan called for preparing Via in stores and giving blind taste tests.

The methodical introduction of Via ­offered a sharp contrast to the old Howard Schultz whose gut told him—wrongly—that Sorbetto would be a winner. Dele­gat­­ing, and accepting other people’s con­­­­­­­­clu­sions, is now easier for him.

“What leadership means is the courage to talk about things that in the past, perhaps we wouldn’t have, because I’m not right all the time,” he says.

Leadership lesson: Born entrepreneurs are not necessarily born managers. You need creativity and drive to start a company. You need discipline and delegation to run one. The Starbucks Chief Barista has shown he can make the leap.

— Adapted from “A Changed Starbucks. A Changed C.E.O.,” Claire Cain Miller, The New York Times.

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