Starbucks SVP Michelle Burns: “Why a leader needs to create an environment where people can bring their whole self”

With Akemi Sue Fisher

Create an environment where people can bring their whole self. Early in my career, I thought that work and everything else was meant to be very separate and not connected. It resulted in creating a perception of myself as a cold and distant leader. Over the years I have learned that creating an environment or culture that encourages warmth, belonging and openness can really support great teamwork and deeper, richer and more committed relationships.

As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Burns, senior vice president, Global Coffee & Tea at Starbucks. Promoted to this role in May 2018, Michelle is responsible for leading all things coffee and tea — both Core and Reserve — including strategy for growing, sourcing, buying, quality, ethical sourcing, sustainment and education. She oversees programs that are grounded in Starbucks heritage, including Origin experiences, Farmer Support Centers, and the Visitor Center and Starbucks Farm at Hacienda Alsacia in Costa Rica. A 24-year Starbucks partner, prior to this role Michelle led the Branded Solutions team and has been a key member of the Starbucks Channel Development and Licensed Stores leadership teams. Prior to joining Starbucks in 1995, Michelle worked in sales and distribution in the Natural Foods Industry with Frontier Cooperative Herbs where she found her passion for coffee and was responsible for developing the natural and mass market channels for the coffee category in the U.K. and United States. Michelle holds a B.A. from the University of Iowa. She serves on the boards of FareStart and National Coffee Association, serves as an executive sponsor for the Starbucks Women’s Impact Network, is involved in Google Food and Beverage Innovation Lab and is a longtime member of the Women’s Foodservice Forum. After a great Starbucks journey living in many cities and serving in many roles across the U.S., Michelle, her husband and two children all enjoy calling Seattle home. Her passions include family, travel, yoga, and great food and wine. Michelle is a Starbucks Coffee Master and starts each day with coffee in a Starbucks store wherever she might be in the world.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I love exploring and telling people’s stories — I was a journalism major in college and made my way into sales. And coffee is an industry that’s so rich with stories. The farmers that grow it, and their communities, the issues and opportunities they face. The people who trade and transport it all around the world. The experts that cup, blend and roast coffee to perfection. And the social, human aspect of coffee in general — coffee is something wonderful to share as we talk to each other. For me, the rituals that surround coffee are a great example of the beautiful rhythm of daily life.

I fell in love with coffee and the coffee industry back in my 20s, when I was working for a natural foods company that had a coffee division. Everything about coffee’s journey from a farm to a cup and all the people along the way — this was part of what attracted me to Starbucks, as a company focused so much on coffee’s ability to help connect people and connect communities.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began helping lead your company?

I’ve had many interesting things happen as a result of being a Starbucks partner. Recently, I had an amazing opportunity to join an expedition with a group of dynamic and committed food and beverage leaders and influencers for a trip to the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway. In support of the Crop Trust and with a mission to ensure the future of our food, the experience brought front and center for me the challenge of climate change and the importance of preserving our food system around the globe forever. The experience directly influenced my passion and commitment to lead in my current role, where we are working every day to ensure a sustainable future for the coffee industry.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Well, I am not sure if it is the funniest, but one great learning I had was very early in my career. I worked in the UK for an American company. I was invited to attend a conference that, I thought, was about the environment and a sharing of what some companies were doing to help the environment. What I didn’t understand was I had been invited to a very small session with then-Prime Minister John Major, and this was an early call to action about climate change and what companies could do to lead the way. My lesson was do your homework, ask lots of questions in advance of situations, and have a plan to be ready to make an impact. In the end, it was a great privilege, and also a great growing experience in how to adapt quickly to unforeseen situations.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I’m proud of the support we’ve committed to coffee farmers and their communities, to the tune of more than $100 million. I’m lucky in that I get to travel around the world to meet coffee farmers and work alongside an incredible team of people who support them daily. What my team does truly improves many lives and livelihoods. It is also a heavy responsibility that the entire team feels and thrives on.

Many people don’t know that we have nine Farmer Support Centers around the world to provide open-source support to farmers, whether they sell to Starbucks, or whether they’re striving to meet our standards for quality and ethical and sustainable practices so they can sell to us.

We also develop new, stronger disease and drought resistant coffee tree varietals. And we’re tracking against a commitment to distribute 100 million healthy new coffee trees to farmers.

We’ve committed $50 million for farmer loans to ensure the “missing middle” and smallholder farmers have access to capital.

And my team partners with The Starbucks Foundation to empower 250,000 women in our supply chain through grants to non-profits to promote leadership opportunities for women and families in coffee and tea growing communities.

There’s always more we can do and want to do, but I’m really proud of our progress and love working on this, figuring out how to best improve farmers’ livelihoods.

Some of the things we do are big, and some are small but so impactful to everyday lives. Recently I had an opportunity to spend time in Sumatra, one of the places we source coffee, where I visited a water station in a farming community that we had helped fund; it’s making such a difference for women who no longer have to walk an hour to get clean and safe water. Next to the new water facility is a medical clinic that we helped fund over a decade ago, which is helping the community. It was a humble reminder that our work is never done, and Starbucks is a company that has been taking care of coffee communities around the world for decades…just as we will for decades to come.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

There are many. We recognize that to serve our customers and take care of our partners (employees), we need to innovate. One exciting project we are working on is leveraging digital traceability technology so our customers can see where their bag of coffee comes from and learn more about it. We’re also exploring how this technology can help better empower coffee farmers. I firmly believe that by empowering farmers with knowledge and data through technology, we can support them in increasing their productivity (coffee yields) and ultimately improve their livelihoods. We source our coffee from nearly 400,000 farms and 30 countries, so we are confident we can make a positive impact.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Invest in people and build relationships that are grounded in trust and honesty and collaboration. There’s nothing better than knowing your team is aligned and humming along. I believe the power of positivity is contagious, and setting a clear shared vision creates a foundation for great things to happen.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Create an environment that empowers others to lead. Creating an inclusive and diverse team in all forms (diversity of thought, gender, race, experience, etc.) always makes for a stronger team.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you’re are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am grateful to many people for advice, guidance, support, tough talk, and sometimes just lending an ear. Some of these leaders have been inside of companies I’ve worked for, and others have not. They have all mattered at different moments in time. I am particularly grateful to those who have seen potential in me and encouraged me to be courageous, often before I saw it myself.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’ve been fortunate in that the work my team and I do every day on behalf of coffee and tea growers around the world is positively impacting those communities, and we’re investing in a better future for them.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. It’s all about people. I believe that leading from the heart and head and in support and service of others is foundational to be a leader.

2. Trust your instincts. I have learned that being too reliant on too much data, analysis, or process can sometimes slow you down and invites missed opportunities. Leading isn’t a perfect science but making decisions and owning whatever comes next offers great opportunities to grow.

3. Be courageous. I believe that if you don’t take risks and challenge the norm as a leader, not only are you not setting a helpful example, but you are encouraging an environment of conformity and mediocrity.

4. Let silence do the heavy lifting. As an early leader, I made the mistake of thinking I was supposed to have all the answers. Through many failures or short-sighted decisions without the input of others, I learned that asking the right questions and creating the space for others to contribute takes you a lot further faster.

5. Create an environment where people can bring their whole self. Early in my career, I thought that work and everything else was meant to be very separate and not connected. It resulted in creating a perception of myself as a cold and distant leader. Over the years I have learned that creating an environment or culture that encourages warmth, belonging and openness can really support great teamwork and deeper, richer and more committed relationships.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

One big movement we’re working on is the Sustainable Coffee Challenge. Back in 2015, we worked with Conservation International to conceive and launch this at the Paris climate talks. Today more than 100 international partners have joined, and we’re working together with a goal to make coffee the world’s first sustainable agricultural product.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I love “We rise when we lift others” as it applies to both leading a team and supporting our coffee and tea communities.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I’d love to meet Michelle Obama. The work she’s doing to use her voice and platform, share her experiences and particularly empower women really speaks to me… and I think also speaks to women in our coffee and tea communities around the world.

About the Author:

Author and business coach, Akemi Sue Fisher, has helped thousands of Amazon sellers scale and grow their businesses to six, seven and eight figures. Akemi has quickly become one of the most trusted and sought after E-commerce consultants in the world. In only three years, her agency, Love & Launch, has helped her clients achieve over one billion dollars in sales through Amazon, eBay, and other e-commerce platforms. Her entrepreneurial spirit and direct approach continue to help elevate not only her success but the success of her clients which range from startups to fortune 500 companies. Akemi also writes a regular, nationally syndicated column that profiles the lessons of prominent female executives.

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