Kevin Johnson Leadership Style

Kevin Johnson succeeded Howard Schultz at the helm of Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) in 2017 with a lot of weight to carry on his shoulders.

He first joined the company in 2009 and played a pivotal role in the company’s digital transformation. When the pandemic hit, Starbucks recovered and forged record share price highs. Many attribute this continued success to the Kevin Johnson leadership style.

He’s known throughout the company as a passionate servant leader who listens to his employees and makes the necessary changes. By the time he joined the C-suite, he already had a 100-day plan in place to grow the company through tough times.

And because he started his career as an IBM (IBM) engineer, he understands and embraces technological innovation. Under his leadership, the company rolled out a successful mobile app and continued setting itself apart from the growing field of competitive coffee brands. This cemented his status as a competent business leader..

Who Is the Current CEO of Starbucks?

Kevin Johnson is the current President and CEO of Starbucks. He took the position in 2017 from Howard Shultz, the man who grew the company from a regional Washington business to an international coffee retail giant.

Schultz is the most well-known (and longest standing) of the Starbucks CEOs. His energy and leadership helped to scale the company exponentially to become one of the largest businesses in the world. Today, Starbucks is everywhere, but it wasn’t always that way. Schultz played a pivotal role in transforming it.

In fact, Schultz left the company in 2000 before returning to revive the company in 2008. It was during this time that he led a mass layoff of Starbucks executive leadership, and Johnson joined the company as a board member. At the time, Johnson had just left Microsoft (MSFT) and was serving as the chief executive of Juniper Networks.

Schultz convinced him to take on more responsibilities within the company, and Johnson became Chief Operating Officer for two years before becoming CEO. During this time, the company streamlined its core business, horizontally revamped its product suite, and addressed racial inequality as a corporation.

This expansion included manufacturing espresso machines and other technologies, along with offering a broader food menu. He oversaw development of the company’s online platform while working on a five-year plan that steered the company through the pandemic.

He earned his staff’s respect through all these changes by keeping his feet on the ground. Of course, Johnson’s story is much longer than his Starbucks tenure.

Who Is Kevin Johnson?

Johnson was born in October 1960 in Washington to a pediatric nurse mother and theoretical physicist father. After graduating from New Mexico State University, he became a systems engineer at IBM (IBM). During that time, he worked on software in the financial services and petroleum industries before he moved on to Microsoft in 1992.

In 2001, he was assigned the Starbucks wireless internet rollout for Microsoft, which is when he started working directly with Schultz. He continued with the company’s worldwide sales, marketing, and services group, overseeing $20 billion of the company’s revenue (approximately 1/3 at the time).

By the time he resigned from his post in July 2008, he was one of only six executives on the Senior Leadership Team working directly with Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates. Both men praised Johnson for his contributions when he left to take over Juniper Networks.

During this time, he focused on running the networking company. This was a return to his original lane at Microsoft (MSFT), but it made him a big fish in a much smaller pond. Leading a smaller team, he helped streamline the company’s revenues and operations to optimize the business.

He spent five years running Juniper Networks before stepping down in January 2014. In March of the next year, he became president and COO of Starbucks, while remaining on its board. This put him in charge of global operations and technology for the company’s 21,000 stores across 66 countries.

This solidified his pre-existing relationship with Schultz, and he was brought on to turn the company around. The progress made by Schultz’s initial run started to slide after he left, and Johnson helped him rejuvenate the company.

After setting up a five-year plan together, Schultz announced in December 2016 that he would step down as Starbucks CEO to be replaced by Johnson. This brought his unique brand of leadership to the forefront of the company’s executive leadership.

What Type of Leadership Does Starbucks Have?

Although Johnson is in the lead now, Starbucks is still known for Schultz’s transformational leadership style. He believes employees should be partners in the company and is one of the first companies to offer employment benefits like stock options and health care to part-time employees.

It’s this dedication to employees that ultimately cemented Starbucks as a global leader in the coffee market. But Johnson kept that energy going while pushing the company to the future.

Within his first year, Johnson rolled out mobile ordering and pickup, along with a $7.15 billion global distribution deal with Nestle. This partnership boosted the company’s market presence by making its products available in grocery, convenience stores, and other retailers. It also put Starbucks coffee into Nespresso and Nescafe products.

Under Johnson’s leadership, the company expanded its international presence, especially in China. This caused the stock to continue rising while the media poured praise on him (for the most part).

Even after two black men were racially profiled in 2018, Johnson was quick to meet with them and apologize. He immediately closed all stores in response to provide company-wide anti-bias training, drawing wide praise for the move.

It’s this ability to take a stand and make the hard decisions that ultimately defines Johnson’s brand.

Kevin Johnson Personal Brand Is Strong

Johnson is a personable man who focuses on his employees. He believes things should bring joy, and his decisions as an executive are geared toward that goal. When he received the key to the original Pike Place store, he took that honor seriously and worked to make a positive impression on his workforce and customers.

When he took over, Johnson streamlined the company’s operations to get rid of the Tazo tea brand and focus on Teavana’s transformation. This caused a lot of downsizing that wasn’t easy for anybody, but even those laid off respect his leadership style.

Under Johnson’s leadership, Starbucks continued moving forward on the path Schultz paved. He says even the COVID-19 pandemic strengthened the company. Because it already had a strong online order and pickup system in place, it pivoted toward the pandemic economy quicker than many other retail stores could.

This solidified Johnson’s personal brand, both among his own team and in the outside world. Although Schultz started the company, Johnson left a permanent impression that will keep people coming back to the brand for generations to come.

It all revolves around his strategy to keep Starbucks on the right track, so let’s finish things off with a quick overview of Johnson’s Starbucks strategy.

Kevin Johnson Starbucks Strategy

Johnson has a simple strategy for Starbucks, and he presented both his five-year and ten-year plans at the start of his tenure. In fact, it’s arguably what earned him his job – he is focused on streamlining the company’s operations and expand into profitable markets.

At the start of his run, he executed over a dozen new initiatives. He dumped the Tazo Tea brand to focus on Teavana, horizontally expanded, and integrated technology into the company. He made deals to get Starbucks coffee on store shelves while creating one of the best branded retail apps in the mobile app stores.

By following his lead, the company became a leading restaurant in terms of its technology implementation. This helped it grow revenues and continue expanding across the globe into other markets, especially China.

The Chinese market is mostly a tea market because of the culture. Johnson and Starbucks are changing this, and the country is quickly becoming as big on coffee consumption as tea. And with the pandemic favoring its contactless pickup and delivery options, Starbucks is well-placed to continue this growth path for the next decade.

This is why Kevin Johnson is recognized as one of the great business leaders of our generation.

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