The One Thing That Most Sets Great Leaders Apart
Belinda Wong, Chairman, and CEO of Starbucks China was faced with the painful decision to close the doors to 4,300 Starbucks stores two weeks after the coronavirus struck China. “There was no playbook for this,” she said. “It was nothing we’d dealt with … and we had limited facts. There was a lot of uncertainty, and the situation was evolving every minute. We had to quickly decide how we were going to lead.” Notice her choice of words here, by the way. They are an important clue to the most important lesson we can learn from great leaders who are forced to make tough decisions.
Just so you have a reference point for understanding how great of a leader Belinda Wong truly is, you might want to know that she was named to Fortune’s 2019 list of the Most Powerful Women in Business. She is also the leader of the fastest growing market for Starbucks, opening new stores at the unprecedented rate of one every fifteen hours. Under her leadership, Starbucks China is on track to open 6,000 new stores in 230 different cities within the next 18-20 months.
While these things are enviable fruits of her leadership, they are not the things that make her a great leader.
Of all the things that Belinda Wong does well, there is one thing that sets her apart, one thing that most leaders simply miss because they are so caught up in the thick of thin things. This one thing makes her more than just a regional hero. It inspires deep loyalty, even love, from the 58,000 people for whom she has day-to-day responsibility.
Belinda rigorously holds the balance between people and performance – and she never forgets which of those two things comes first in the equation, even when the business is on the line. The order matters to her. After all, it’s people who grow the business, and her leadership attests to her belief that putting performance ahead of those responsible for its growth surely means she will never get it. She gets this truth better than most leaders ever will!
Belinda describes her leadership in simple terms: “I’m here to take care of my people — the 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 Starbucks partners — and to do what I can to help. … And it’s not just them, it’s their families.” She is clear about what leadership truly means – and she is not afraid to put her money where her mouth is.
Because of this, it was a no-brainer to close the doors of all Starbucks stores so as to keep employees and customers safe. It was equally obvious that they needed to keep paying employees even while the business was shut down. As if these things were not enough to convey caring to employees, she extended all insurance benefits to their families, including their parents. She did this even though these choices would affect the business’ bottom line to the tune of more than $270 million. Not easy decisions!
If you’re having a heart attack as a leader just thinking about making these kinds of staggering choices, you might be interested to know that it is exactly decisions like these that have made Starbucks’ employees among the most engaged in the industry. This means that Starbucks China will likely outperform its competitors by 202% when this all shakes out. It also means that what appears on the surface to be a short-term loss may end up setting up Starbucks China to be the clear market leader for years to come.
If you’d like to see your business outperform its competitors and recover quickly from whatever crises you may be facing, you need the same kind of clarity that Belinda Wong demonstrated. It starts by asking yourself the tough question, the one that most leaders are too busy chasing performance to ask. Simply stated, it is this: “What is truly important here?”
If you don’t answer “people,” maybe you’ve forgotten why you’re in business.
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