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Case Studies Fulfilling the Mission: Starbucks Uses Fierce Conversations Around the Globe


Since 1971, Starbucks Coffee Company has been committed to ethically sourcing and roasting the highest quality arabica coffee in the world. Today, with stores around the globe, the company is the premier roaster and retailer of specialty coffee in the world.

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Over the last 40 years, Starbucks Coffee Company has become one of the most well-known and well-loved brands in the world. The name Starbucks is synonymous with excellent coffee and evokes a warm, welcoming environment.


For most Starbucks leaders, talking about achieving results and celebrating success comes naturally. In the first 35 years of the company’s history, talking about business mistakes and identifying areas that needed improvement was less common.

Then came the economic downturn and global financial crisis. In 2008, Starbucks was forced to make some incredibly difficult decisions—including large-scale layoffs and store closures. “People were having conversations they’d never had to have before,” said Darla Balzer, a past store manager and current senior learning specialist. “For the first time it was critical to consider doing things differently than they’d been done in the past.” Ensuring curiosity and innovation remained strong was critical.

“Part of being in the retail environment for so many years is you get really good at following orders without question,” said Balzer. “Someone tells you what to do, and you do it. What’s trickier is encouraging candor and intellectual curiosity even through tough times—ensuring conversations continue to take place and questions get asked.”

A New Partnership

Starbucks began using Fierce training in Canada in 2005. The program became increasingly popular and grew organically — one person, then one team, at a time. Groups of Starbucks partners engaged in book clubs featuring Susan Scott’s best-selling book, “Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time.” The growing interest led the learning team to make the decision to certify facilitators and offer workshops. Over coffee, the conversations flourished, and the methodology spread to other parts of the company in other parts of the world.

In the midst of the changing business landscape of 2009, Starbucks Global Learning signed their first contract agreement with Fierce. The goal? To create a common language and framework for all types of conversations—including team, coaching, delegation and confrontation.


As stores adopted new approaches—waste reduction, lean processes, and efficiency upgrades—Fierce provided the philosophical framework for conversations that needed to take place to support and sustain the changes, specifically around coaching and confrontation. Starbucks encouraged partners to ask tough questions and look at each conversation as a possible impetus for change and growth.

Starbucks and Fierce created a blended global solution with both online and in-person components. They certified master facilitators in Seattle and Amsterdam and prepared trainers in all major markets, including Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Currently, Fierce training impacts non-retail employees from individual contributors to senior vice presidents and retail employees from district managers to vice presidents.

What Changed…and What Stayed the Same

“We have a cultural desire to be warm and welcoming, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk openly about things,” said Balzer. “Teams who embrace the strategies are more cohesive and able to move forward rapidly.”

The common language and framework from the Fierce partnership has reduced the amount of time that people spend preparing for conversations. It resulted in more time spent connecting with each other and asking questions to gain better understanding. Conversations are still warm and genuine, but they are also more candid.

The Fierce diagnosis of “terminal niceness”—avoiding or working around problems in order to prevent bad feelings—resonates with many Starbucks partners going through Fierce training. Nothing harms relationships more and cripples organizations faster than reluctance to point out destructive habits or flawed strategies. Honest, respectful, and genuine exchanges build trust and strengthen relationships.

Leveraging influence without positional authority has been another area for change at Starbucks, especially in licensed stores. Licensed stores are those located in hospitals, airports, hotels, colleges, grocery stores, or other locations Starbucks customers want them. Because many licensed store leaders are not part of the hierarchy of their locations, they are more reliant on their ability to inspire and influence others in order to ensure licensed stores deliver the Starbucks Experience to all customers. District managers working with licensed stores are seeing marked improvements in their ability to motivate and lead others. Likewise, others without direct authority are increasingly able to influence decisions through relationships and strong partnerships.


While the impacts of honest feedback and full disclosure are sometimes hard to quantify, greater clarity, improved accountability, and overall transparency are significantly impacting individual growth and collective success.

Fierce continues to collaborate with Starbucks to ensure the culture remains as inclusive, candid, curious, and innovative as ever, no matter the business climate. Partners continue to strengthen problem-solving skills and discuss the most pressing issues openly and regularly. As a result, the world’s premier roaster and retailer of specialty coffee is able to focus on its Mission “to inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup, one neighborhood…” and one conversation at a time.

Close-Up on Canada

Sustainability of learning is one of the most common challenges learning leaders face. The learning team for Starbucks Canada ensures Fierce training doesn’t become the next flavor-of-the-month by focusing as much on pre- and post-training as on the training itself.


“We analyze the audience before training takes place,” said Bridget Luca, National Manager of Learning and Development. “That way we’re able to pre-frame learning and identify those who need pre-work or need to be brought up-to-speed before training begins.”

Quarterly offerings are impacted by demand and provide applicable content to increase relevance. In one quarter, the focus might be on team conversations and in the next quarter the focus may be on delegation—depending on the needs that were identified.


“One reason the program has been successful is we’ve spiraled the learning over time, and ensured it builds on prior concepts,” said Katya Cautillo, Learning and Development Manager for Eastern Canada. “Every time a new module is introduced, the foundational piece is revisited with links made to previously learned modules.”

Training is focused primarily on intact teams. Leaders select appropriate modules for their direct reports based on needs, as opposed to using more general content. As a result, leaders set expectations, and learning can be absorbed before the next piece is introduced.


“Our goal is to ensure the tools and resources are used,” said Luca. “By introducing concepts repeatedly, we hope they stay top-of-mind, whatever the issue.”

Immediate applicability, both individually and organizationally, engages learners, increases relevance, and improves learning transfer.

Canada’s organic, yet focused, approach to Fierce training has resulted in leaders who are comfortable using the tools and prepared to have regular and productive conversations with those around them—whether they’re colleagues, direct reports, managers, or clients.

What’s Next?

Now that over 300 store managers in western Canada have participated in the instructor-led Fierce Foundations workshop, the plan is to roll out Fierce Foundations to all store managers across Canada. In addition, district managers are beginning to identify store managers for the opportunity to participate in coaching and confrontation e-Learning modules. Fierce training is building candor, collaboration, and intellectual curiosity across Canada and across the globe.