Starbucks’ Partnership Approach

Adapted from “Leading the Starbucks Way” by Dr. Joseph Michelli.

“Treat employees like partners, and they act like partners.”

—Fred Allen, American radio personality

It sounds like such a simple phrase, yet it carries a lot of weight. If words could change the world, then these nine words would transform much of business today. But, what exactly do these words mean? On the surface, they seem fairly self-explanatory. “Treat employees like partners, and they act like partners” is sage, simple, and memorable advice. However at the root, the phrase also can serve as the basis of an entire business model for companies such as coffee giant Starbucks. In fact, at Starbucks, a true partnership approach applies to all stakeholders, employees, shareholders, suppliers, and even customers.

From the perspective of Starbucks leaders, the strong loyalty connection the brand enjoys with its customers is linked directly to the way in which those leaders connect with and develop their employees, or partners, as they are called. In fact, every aspect of trainingfrom new hire orientation to ongoing personal and professional developmentis guided by a commitment to build a dynamic learning community at Starbucks.

In new hire training, for example, Starbucks leaders utilize a 70/20/10 approach. Based on research on how people integrate and utilize new information, baristas (coffee servers) at Starbucks receive approximately 70 percent of their initial coffee education through on-the-job experience and hands-on practice. Another 20 percent of their training is the result of feedback and mentorship from their peers, their learning coach, and store management. And 10 percent is derived from an online modularized curriculum.

As a front-line partner at Starbucks, there is more to learn and discover than just what goes into making a triple vanilla latte (although clearly that is a central job skill). New partners must pass a knowledge test before even touching a cup of coffee and then they get to demonstrate their competency skills to their store manager. While rich knowledge and skills-based education alone do not guarantee that certified baristas will have a passion for the products they prepare and serve, education and personal growth do increase a barista’s awareness of and appreciation for coffee. To be certified as a barista, a new partner must complete the following curriculum:

Learning Block 1: First Impressions and Customer Experience, Starbucks Experience, Coffee Brewing and Tasting, Espresso Bar Basics, and Food Warming

Learning Block 2: Beverage Essentials, Cold Beverages, Coffee Growing and Processing, and Point of Sale

Learning Block 3: Beverage Preparation, Customer Service Essentials, and Coffee Roasting and Packaging

Starbucks University

To fuel ongoing personal development and partner engagement, leaders at Starbucks have merged on-the-job-training with formal academic offerings in a concept they call Starbucks University. Starbucks U refers to a recently created program for U.S. partners, wherein they are eligible to receive college credits for training provided as part of their job (e.g., the barista training course described above, shift supervisor training, etc.). Starbucks leaders have secured college-credit eligibility for partners by working with the American Council of Education (ACE) to accredit select training offerings. Similarly, leadership has collaborated with City University of Seattle and Strayer University to amplify the impact of the company’s existing tuition reimbursement for eligible partners in the U.S. and Canada. The City University program, for example, provides Starbucks partners the opportunity to have their application fee waived, a 25 percent reduction in all undergraduate and graduate tuition, and exclusive scholarships, among other benefits. Similarly, the Strayer University program offers 20 percent tuition discounts, free academic tutoring and advising, and the flexibility of 24/7 online courses.

One partner noted, “I decided to go back to school last year. I enrolled at Strayer University and received an initial $1,000 scholarship from Strayer, as well as a 20 percent discount on tuition and credit for Starbucks Training. A few months after I started school, I received a $2,500 Fall Scholarship from Starbucks U. All of this is because I am a Starbucks partner. Starbucks has made a difference in my life, a girl from Haiti who barely spoke English when I started working here. It has been the best time of my life.”

Leaders who are interested in growing their people find ways to collaborate with other business and learning institutions like Strayer University and City University to offer benefits they might not be able to provide alone. By finding strategic alliances, these leaders stretch and extend their employee benefit budgets and serve to answer an important question for their people, “Do you care enough about me to help me achieve personal, as well as professional, development objectives?”

Starbucks leaders demonstrate their care for their partners and, in turn, their customers. They deploy training and development to drive partner engagement. That engagement, in turn, leads to increased visit frequency, wider product penetration, greater customer retention, consistent product sell-through, and employee pride and knowledge. And it adds to the bottom line as reflected in Starbucks record-breaking third-quarter earning numbers in 2013.

Dr. Joseph Michelli has spent the majority of his life following his “true north”: helping people be of greater service to one another. This passion for service and “otherness” has driven him to write more than seven books relating to elevating human experiences and bettering the world, one person, one leader, and one organization at a time. His latest book is “Leading the Starbucks Way.” Dr. Michelli’s professional journey as a customer experience consultant, combined with his doctorate in systems psychology, have formed the valuable cocktail of human experience and professional vision. For more information, visit or

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