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Starbucks and Scale - Reflections from Dinner with District Leaders and Howard Behar

By: Ben Politzer on March 19th, 2014

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Starbucks and Scale - Reflections from Dinner with District Leaders and Howard Behar

Personalized Learning  |  School Districts  |  Curriculum Strategy & Adoption  |  Innovative Leadership

On Friday, March 14, as part of ASCD, district leaders from around the country including two Superintendents of the Year, a Race to the Top Winner, and district leaders from the League of Innovative Schools joined Education Elements and former President of Starbucks Howard Behar at a dinner where Howard shared his experiences about leading through growth and change at Starbucks.

This was a group of leaders committed to making change in sustainable ways for their districts. While their strategies were different, they shared a common set of goals around transforming teaching and learning, personalizing learning, integrating technology and instruction, and boosting student achievement. With Howard they shared a desire to approach this type of large scale change in a deliberate and thoughtful manner.

When Howard started at Starbucks there were only 28 stores - there are now over 20,000 internationally - so he knows a lot about change management and scale. Anthony Kim, CEO and Founder of Ed Elements, introduced with with one of Howard’s favorite quotes - which fit both him and the leaders in the room “Think like a person of action. Act like a person of thought.”

Howard shared anecdotes about changes big and small - where they originated from, how they rolled out and what made them successful. Things we, as Starbucks customers, first welcomed and then quickly took for granted took tremendous efforts across a set of carefully aligned stakeholders to be implemented well. For example, he described how Starbucks stores - which had focused exclusively on coffee -- got warming ovens, nonfat milk, and Frappuccinos (can you now imagine your life without them?) - and how all of these changes required work, effort and buy-in from everyone - from management to barista. He explained that in spite of the critical importance of consistency to a high quality experience, sometimes listening to and supporting the creative experimentation among your staff can lead to amazing results. He talked about the challenges of change, how to overcome them, and how gratifying the results can be.

The messages resonated with district leaders who, like the CEO or President of a major company have many stakeholders, big budgets, significantly sized staff and operations, and both a healthy dose of fear of failure as well as a strong commitment to impact. His talk spurred discussion and debate about how this applied to their own work, as they think about integrating technology and personalizing learning at scale. Everyone got an autographed copy of his book, “It’s Not About the Coffee” which talks about how the Starbucks phenomenon isn’t about a cup of coffee, but a full experience. We think that it’s the same with schools. The full experience matters.

For our team, we loved the chance to engage with some amazing leaders, as well as the ability to provide the opportunity to others to learn from one of our board members. A big thank you to Howard and the attendees for making it a memorable evening!

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Howard Behar and Anthony Kim At Flemings Restaurant

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About Ben Politzer

Ben is the Senior Director of Marketing and is interested in connecting people to the right supports. He is a former teacher and school principal. He loves new ideas, new ways of looking at problems, and is forever learning how to be a better dad, leader, and marketer.

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