Joining me on this week’s episode is Jim Olson. For 25 years, Jim has been at the forefront of telling some of the most defining business and social impact stories of our time. Along the way he has led the global corporate communications teams for brands, including Starbucks, United Airlines and US Airways. Today, he’s an executive in residence and chief communications officer at African Leadership University in Mauritius.
Jim graciously shared his insight and observations on a number of topics including:
- How did Starbucks find a new, ethical option about how to deal with the presence of guns in their stores?
- How we can help heal the fracturing of humanity by moving from impact to consequence?
- The ethical imperative of purpose
Why don’t you tell our listeners a little bit more about yourself and your career?
Looking backwards, my calling has always been about helping other people answer their calling. I’ve been very lucky in my career to have gotten to work with some of the organizations you’ve mentioned that have allowed me not only to help those other people that work at those organizations as well as those organizations themselves, achieve their calling. But also to tell, what I call some pretty consequential stories. I’ve dealt with my fair share of crises, and I had my fair share of battle wounds from crises over the years. I also love telling a great leadership story. Ultimately after 25 years of climbing the corporate ladder, I found my way to the remote Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, where I’m serving as an executive in residence and CCO at the African Leadership University,
I’m fascinated about that. You and I first met when you were working with US Airways, but tell me more about what you’re doing and what the African Leadership University is doing.
It’s one of those just magical experiences in your career that just literally lands in your lap. I was reading Fast Company about the most innovative organizations in the world and took a flyer and wrote the founder of the University, Fred Swaniker, who is one of Time’s most influential people in the world. A few weeks later we are having a conversation in New York and he was inviting me to move to Africa. And so here I am sitting on the north shore of a beautiful Island. I’ve been quarantined for the last few months, but it all came together.
We have campuses here in Mauritius, in Rwanda, Nairobi and South Africa, and are also doing some exciting things with creating a low cost, highly scalable digital version of our university through a program called ALX, that will allow us to expand our mission of developing three million leaders across Africa over the next 15 years. And our curriculum, which is focused on asking students to pick a mission or define a mission versus a major is really a game changer. And so, I think that’s why universities like Stanford and magazines like Fast Company and New York Times and NPR and CNN have actually called us one of the most innovative universities in the world.
It’s mission versus major?
That’s really what caught my attention when I first heard about the University. Students select a mission. They work with faculty and facilitators to curate a custom curriculum around 1 of 14 different global challenges that are aligned with the UN’s global challenges. It could be anything from healthcare to transportation, to education, to wildlife conservation, which is obviously a really popular one over here in Africa. And once you pick your mission, you build a curriculum around that, then you build a bachelor’s degree that could be around starting an entrepreneurial venture. It could be a public policy issue that you focus around. But the idea is rather than the University giving you a short list of majors to pick from, we let you declare what your mission is and then work with you to achieve that impact in your life.
You have worked with a lot of great companies and great brands. Thinking back over those 25 years, what’s the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?
One of the higher profile situations that I had to contend with was eight years ago, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, where 20 children and 6 adults lost their lives. One of those teachers was a part time barista at Starbucks, a young lady named Lauren Rousseau. Guns and gun violence have always been a politically and emotionally polarizing issue for the US. This time, it was one of our own that had been directly affected by it, we as an organization, our team at Starbucks, where I was serving as the head of global corporate communications, were actually, for the first time in my life and as an organization, directly connected to this issue.
In the weeks that followed the Sandy Hook shooting, many of our stores became actually a battleground for the gun debate. On the one hand, you had a very vocal gun violence advocate, legislation advocates, fighting for more legislation. On the other side, you had a very strong vocal Second Amendment right advocates.
What we found was a very visible presence of firearms and sometimes very large firearms showing up in our stores. Thankfully, there was no violence associated with those, but for many of our employees and for many of our customers, it was counter to the warm and welcoming atmosphere that we tried to create in our stores. We were essentially faced with almost an impossible choice to make as an organization. We either, we’re going to have to ban guns from our store and essentially provoke a Constitutional firestorm or continue to comply with states open carry laws, which is what we had been doing previously and jeopardize that warm and welcoming family atmosphere that I talked about earlier.
We had thousands of stores across the country, spanning across red states, blue states and purple states, and our employees, our customers and our investors were passionately on both sides of this issue. Essentially, we thought in our minds, it was going to be a no win choice. We debated it for weeks. Actually, it might’ve even spread into a couple months. We had some very lively and passionate debates and very intellectually honest debates within our organization, all the way up to Howard Schultz, our chairman and CEO and the board was involved. But what I think makes this story a great learning lesson is that we ultimately landed on neither of those choices.
Instead, we took out full page newspaper ads and utilized our social media channels to deliver an open letter from our chairman and CEO, Howard Schultz to the country, respectfully requesting that gun owners not bring their guns or their firearms to Starbucks stores. And it worked.
By politely requesting that our customers respect our request, not to bring their firearms to our stores, they were inclined to actually respect our request versus challenge a ban. If you draw a double yellow line, we would have a lot of second amendment folks that might try to challenge that ban, but by respectfully requesting that folks, when they came into our home or into our stores, respect our requests, that creates a whole different atmosphere and tonality to a situation.
And so months, and even years after that decision, guns essentially vanished from Starbucks stores. Other major brands like Target and others actually called on us. We kind of joked on the corporate communications team, we could have started a consultancy around how to effectively do this, but we ultimately had a lot of brands that called us wanting to understand how we addressed this issue. And many of them actually followed our lead.
I think that’s a fascinating example. You have passionate stakeholders, both acting what they thought was in the greater good on both sides of the issue. Society is so split on this issue. How did you work through it? How do you start working through that with your executives?
Once we had one of our own directly impacted by gun violence, that was a catalyzing issue for us. We had guns in our stores before that, but now it was a very acute situation for us. Again, like I said, we had a lot of debate. In the beginning it was essentially like most issues that companies face and ethical choices, they view it through the lens of a binary issue. It’s a black and white decision, or it’s option A versus option B. We ultimately got kind of stuck in this treadmill of debate. And we then challenged ourselves to think, is there a third way?
I think that’s the big lesson from this – when you think an issue is only a binary issue, and there’s only two choices or two ways out, there are more. I’ve always now challenged myself and my teams going forward every time at any organization. Whether it’s been a United Airlines or others…when what appears to be a binary issue crosses my screen, or we get into a meeting setting, I challenge myself and I challenge the group to think, okay guys, we’re looking at this through these two lenses, but is there a third way? Are we really thinking imaginatively enough about how we can work through this issue?
I think that’s a great point. I call it the oblique approach. Is there some other way to kind of get to where the consensus is? And what I like about what you did as an outside observer is by having that request, that gives your stores flexibility in different areas. So if you’re in states where open carry or even common concealed carry is not an issue, that’s fine for those stores, if they wanted to continue to do it. But really lets you adapt to the situation on a regional and a store by store basis as well.
Is there anything you’d do differently about this?
I think it went down better than any of us ever imagined. We really didn’t know what to expect from it. I think the one thing we might have done differently is we should have actually started that debate and made that decision much sooner. We waited for that catalyzing event, Lauren Rousseau’s death. In hindsight, there’s no reason why we couldn’t have, as an organization, started the review of this issue sooner and made that decision sooner.
Well, speaking of catalyzing events, there’s a lot of catalyzing events going on in the world today. What are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
To be frank, what we’re facing right now is I think something much bigger than an ethics challenge. We’re essentially looking at the fracturing of humanity and a crisis of humanity. But the good news is that when we want to solve these mega challenges, we can do it. And we saw with COVID-19, we are capable of extraordinary acts of humanity as companies of all stripes from small startup companies to hundred billion dollar market cap companies like Google, orchestrated to do everything from converting their factories to manufacturer masks and ventilators to airlines, essentially giving up seats to fly doctors and nurses across the country and supplies across the country. We need that same orchestration and orchestrated unity of purpose that companies continue to do today to fight the global pandemic, to fight the equally big, if not bigger, virus of racism and injustice that has been plaguing our country for decades.
As companies and leaders, we need to move from looking at our leadership through a lens of being impactful to looking at our organizations and our leadership through the lens of being consequential. We need to move from trying to just be successful to actually being significant and having a ripple effect across our communities.
Your listeners may recall that in 2015 at Starbucks, we rolled out an initiative called Race Together. When we developed that initiative, we asked ourselves, what could we do as an organization? How could we use our scale as a global organization, to create more empathy, more understanding, and more compassion in the wake of a number of racially charged tragedies that at that time had rippled across places like Ferguson, Missouri, and other parts of the country?
Race Together was not about pretending to have all of the answers or even any of the answers to racism and injustice in America. It was simply about starting the conversation, and conversation as we are seeing today is long overdue. We took a lot of heat for that initiative and absolutely we did not get the execution or the sequencing of that perfectly. But our intention to use our stores and our brand to have the conversations that so many people are saying we need to have now…I have no regrets and would roll out that initiative again in a heartbeat.
You mentioned that businesses need to start looking beyond being impactful to being consequential. Can you tell me more about that?
When I think about being impactful, it may be from a customer perspective about driving extraordinary customer satisfaction. It may be about from a financial perspective, driving exponential double digit bottom line results. Even from a community standpoint, it may be about making a dent in a particular issue in the community.
Being consequential to me is ultimately about having the judgment and the leadership to weigh in on what ultimately are in many cases, life and death decisions. Boeing’s a great example of a company that was faced with consequential leadership choices with the 737 MAX. Organizations today in the face of COVID and the racial injustice travesties that we’re seeing are going to need to make consequential decisions about how they operate going forward and how leaders lead going forward.
It sounds like it’s a continuation of what the Business Round Table did last August, where they finally came out and said, it’s not shareholder value, it’s stakeholder value. And it’s really understanding how do we engage and benefit all our stakeholders and society as a whole.
Absolutely. It’s about moving from looking at the world through a lens of success to significance. And it’s about, making that shift from aspiring to be an impactful leader, to being a leader of consequence and moving your organization from being an admired brand to a consequential brand.
How do the communicators engage their CEOs effectively to start thinking in that way to help move companies beyond impact to consequence?
I think the great news is a lot of organizations are already doing this. It starts with your shared sense of purpose or your mission. You need an authentic, well thought out and an aligned, shared purpose that is agreed upon and fully embraced by the organization and the board. That’s why I use that word shared purpose. It cannot be a top down exercise to create a shared purpose. It truly has to be a bottoms up and tops down and sideways development of that shared purpose. Once you have that shared purpose locked in under glass, then a lot of these decisions become a lot easier, but the key is you’ve got to hold yourself true to your purpose. And that means it takes a lot of courage and bravery to do that because a lot of these are tough decisions to make. And that’s why I go back to this idea of consequential leadership.
At Starbucks our decision to respectfully request that our customers not bring their firearms into our store, that was a consequential decision that ultimately laddered up to our mission as an organization, which was to nurture and inspire the human spirit. If you’ve got clarity of purpose in your organization and your leadership is aligned behind that, that’s the starting point for alignment around these different issues.
You’re outside of the states right now in Mauritius. How are you having that discussion and educating the students that don’t have the perspective of Americans on what the heck is going on here in America?
We were actually just having that conversation today. It’s definitely be a topic for the next term. Our students are actually on break right now. So it’s not a topic that’s formally part of the curriculum, but certainly a topic that we’re going to be addressing with them kind of outside the classroom. But I think for us, again, it goes back to this idea of purpose and your mission. And for us as a University, even though we’re sitting here in Africa, our purpose as a University is around developing ethical and entrepreneurial leaders. And so with that mission of developing leaders that are seeking to make an impact through that lens of entrepreneurial and ethical leadership. As a leadership team here at the university, it would be incomplete educational or learning experience for our students if we didn’t have a real rough and tumble authentic conversation about what’s going on in the world today.
When I think about the public relations industry and even business as a whole, we’ve been talking about diversity equity inclusion for decades. Frankly, there’s been little movement. How can we accelerate that? How do we go beyond when people say we’re committed to diversity to actually put that into action and bring that humanity back together?
First and foremost, on the D&I front, and we’re seeing a lot of companies finally taking D&I seriously. I know a lot of great diversity and inclusion leaders that have been taking some pretty senior roles at companies over the last couple of years. Rewind the clock back 10, 15, even maybe 5 years ago, a lot of organizations didn’t even have a dedicated leader to that topic. It might’ve been a junior level manager within the community relations department. Now you’re finding across the board, it’s almost more of a rarity not to have an executive level leader that’s fully dedicated to D&I. So I think that’s a tremendous stride forward. Now the key is organizations actually putting wood behind the arrow and giving those leaders that are in those positions the autonomy, financial resources, the leadership support they need to actually effectively do their jobs.
Thinking back on your career, what’s the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given.
I think we already kind of talked about this idea of aligning with your purpose.
Also, I wanted to share a leadership example. When I graduated from Syracuse back in 1991, I returned to Los Angeles where I’d actually done an internship at Nissan the summer before. I reached out to the Chief communications officer of Nissan North America and I asked him if he had any entry level openings. And he said that he didn’t have any immediate openings, but I can still come down and visit with them. And we could brainstorm some ideas.
About halfway through the meeting, his assistant came in and pulled him out to go into another brief meeting. But before he left, he slid his large oversized Rolodex (Most folks that are probably listening to this don’t even remember those) and he said, pick three cards of people you want to meet out of it, and then we’ll talk. And so about 20 minutes later, Don returned to his office and he said did you pick three cards? I say, yeah, here they are. Within a couple of weeks, Don had actually reached out to those three people. These were very senior leaders in the communications field within Los Angeles. And within three weeks, those individuals actually reached out to me to set up interviews. And so while we don’t have Rolodexes today, we all have very extensive LinkedIn connection portfolios.
I always try to continue to pay forward that experience. When I meet a recent university graduate or somebody else looking for kind of a step up in their career…I don’t have a Rolodex to push across the table to them, but I do have a LinkedIn account that they can browse through connections and maybe pick a couple of connections of people they’d like to meet. And so that was kind of my way of paying forward Don’s very generous experience.
I met him a few years ago for lunch and reminded him of that story. And he actually didn’t remember that a specific experience but he did say it sounded like something he would have done. When he started his career at GCI Group his boss asked if there were three people he would like to meet. And so, he kind of carried through that tradition to emerging leaders.
I think the big lesson from that is that the more you help others, the more you want to continue to help others. I think it goes back to the whole point of this conversation of in the time we’re in right now. And the more we give the more we want to give, the more we help, the more we’ll want to help. And we just need much, much more of that attitude in our world today.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here:
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- What can PR professionals learn from the open source community? – Laura Kempke - July 19, 2021
- What to do when your boss doesn’t value honesty as much as you do – Gary McKillips - July 12, 2021