You Don’t have to Be a Tech Expert to Confront Disruption, says Incoming Starbucks Chief

Howard Schultz hands over the key to the original Starbucks store to (now) CEO Kevin Johnson during the Starbucks annual meeting of shareholders on March 22, 2017 in Seattle.

When Kevin Johnson was picked to replace Howard Schultz as the head of Starbucks, the move was hailed as a smart of way of bringing the coffee chain further into the digital age.

Johnson, who’s first day as CEO is today, started his career as a software developer at IBM before going on to serve in various executive roles at Microsoft and as CEO of networking technology company Juniper Networks.

He’s unsure, though, if all that tech experience will give him an edge in understanding the challenges facing Starbucks.

“I don’t know if it does,” he told the Seattle Times. “Being aware of technology innovation is a good thing. Sometimes it comes from just having kids and a grandson now, and watching what they use.”

“YOU HAVE TO CONSTANTLY BE INNOVATING IN A WAY THAT IS RELEVANT TO YOUR CUSTOMERS.”

More importantly, the lessons he’s learned appear to have more to do with attitude than a deep knowledge of computers and software. “The one thing that being in the tech industry has taught me that’s applicable is that you have to constantly be innovating in a way that’s relevant to your customers,” Johnson said.

To that end, Starbucks is trying to discover new ways of improving the customer experience. Recently, its smartphone ordering app became so popular it caused congestion in stores.

Johnson will address the problem by hiring more staff at peak times, some of them filling new roles designed to specially service digital customers. Starbucks also is piloting new technology that will send mobile app users a message indicating when their coffee will be ready.

The 56-year-old will occupy an office right next to Schultz, who is staying on to manage the high-end Reserve brand. He’s not concerned about his long-time former boss looking over his shoulder: “Howard appreciates and respects the fact that I need to establish my own leadership agenda,” he told the Times.

Johnson said he’d also continue to champion some of the causes supported by his predecessor, such as hiring 10,000 refugees. But whether he’ll be as politically outspoken remains to be seen.

On Donald Trump, for example, Johnson was fairly diplomatic. “We’re certainly interested in seeing what the new administration comes up with in terms of trade policy and tax policy,” he said. “But I don’t think there’s anything necessarily concerning at this point.”

Ross Kelly
Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.

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