I met him while working with Starbucks around the time I wrote my first book about the company titled The Starbucks Experience. I’d venture to say that Starbucks might have been little more than one man’s vision if it wasn’t for his leadership strengths.
He was one of the original architects of the brand – a part of a leadership triumvirate playfully referred to as H2O (two Howards and an Orin – Howard Schultz, Howard Behar and Orin Smith).
I was at the Starbucks corporate office that day in March 2005, when Starbucks partners said goodbye to Orin Smith. He made modest remarks and was sent off with a Starbucks card for lifetime use.
Orin died recently at the age of 75 from pancreatic cancer. I write this blog to serve multiple purposes 1.) to celebrate the life of a great leader who inspired me, 2.) to appreciate the multiplicity of leadership strengths needed to achieve greatness, and 3.) to look at the role of pragmatism in creating customer experience success.
Celebrating an Inspirational Leader
While I could share my own praise for Orin, it might be best to leave that to the two Howards (both of whom were quoted in a thoughtful Seattle Times article written by Rachel Lerman). Howard Behar spoke of his long-time business partner by noting Orin “was a gentle guy and he had one of those really dry senses of humor.” Howard Behar went on to describe Orin as a calming force when Howard Behar and Howard Schultz would engage in heated discussion about the best course for Starbucks.
Howard Schultz, the visionary leader of Starbucks for most of the company’s existence credits much of Starbucks success to Orin, who he described as the person who taught him to “lead and to live with humanity.”
“He was the older brother I never had, always providing the wisdom and sage guidance to me and the company, while never seeking the stage nor the spotlight,” Schultz wrote in an email to Starbucks employees. “Always, shining the light and giving the credit to others. He made us all better, especially me. There would be no Starbucks of today, if not for Orin Smith.”
One final note on the greatness of Orin, he created vast wealth but also gave back to his community in magnificent ways, as evidenced by his active involvement in the University of Washington Board of Regents. His charitable giving included a $10 million contribution to the library in the city where he was raised in support of their Student Achievement Initiative.
Diverse Strengths Required for Greatness
Orin’s leadership style juxtaposed with those of his colleagues demonstrates the need to have varying personal strengths to steward a successful business enterprise. For a sole proprietor, that breadth of strengths might need to be developed, and for a growing business, those strengths need to be woven through the selection process to result in a tapestry of complementary leader competencies.
From my vantage point, Orin was the methodical, grounded, firm but fair leader committed to pragmatism and talent development. He was fiscally prudent and a striking contrast to Howard Schultz the charismatic, outgoing, unique visionary that drove Starbucks into meteoric growth and often unseen possibilities. Orin was not the “quick to act” leader. He was “quick to think” and steady to action.
A takeaway I learned early in my career from the senior leadership team at Starbucks, was that “complementary strengths” can increase success, while compatible qualities can produce redundancies, blind spots, and vulnerabilities.
Pragmatism and Customer Experience
I am a big fan of the question “what if?” It is in the DNA of visionaries like Howard Schultz. From my view, for every “what if” leader – there needs to be a regulator – like Orin Smith – who reels that visionary back-in (after giving them ample space to ideate). That person has to be a big fan of the question “how?” They also have to assure that the following types of questions are asked with frequency:
How can we realistically make that happen on behalf of our customers?
What else will we need to give up to make that vision possible?
Call to Action
First, thank you for indulging me in my homage to Orin, but more importantly, I hope you will take action on this tribute/leadership analysis. Here are a few possible actions to consider:
- Immediately thank an inspirational leader who has shaped you. We never know how long we have to express our appreciation.
- Look at your leadership strengths and opportunities and either develop leadership competencies outside your comfort zone or hire people with complementary qualities – if you are a part of a larger organization.
- Ask lots of “what if” questions but always follow up with “how” and “at what expense or with what probability of quality execution?”
I have been blessed to work with and around great leaders like Orin. I believe that the legacy of those leaders live in those they’ve helped develop. That sets up my final question:
Who might you mentor today – as part of your lasting leadership impact?
Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies. Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli