In light of my five coffees-a-day cravings, there are few things I know more about than the way dozens of Starbucks stores operate around New York City. I can tell anyone needing a Grande Americano where to expect to wait ten minutes, where your dog will and will not be welcome, where you’ll find artists sitting around chatting, where the bathrooms are particularly clean, and where there isn’t enough room to hold a comfortable conversation with a friend. In short, I would modestly submit that I am a Starbucks expert in my city.
Because of this carefully honed expertise, when I moved to midtown and started daily visiting a new Starbucks location I immediately and instinctively knew that something was very different. From the staff’s hearty “Good Morning!” the moment a customer opened the door, to the short lines reflecting efficient service, to the authentic smiles that shaped the faces of each employee – each day’s visit was remarkably pleasant. Even the condiment bar – that scary nook in every Starbucks where it generally appears a small world war has just occurred on its granite surface – was organized and clean.
Morning after morning refreshingly surpassed my expectations so – as a student of leadership – I began trying to figure out who was running the show. It didn’t take long to realize it was the youthful looking guy taking on every task from barista to cash register to cleaner. Everyday he would buzz around the floor wearing a Starbucks ball cap, his face most notable for his regal nose and radiant smile. He seemed to be talking constantly: greeting customers, praising his staff or offering them direction. After months of observation, I couldn’t resist. I had to know more. In an awkward exchange, I gave him my card and asked him to call me. With some degree of skepticism on his face, I promised that I was just hoping to ask him a few questions about his leadership style. I would later learn that his name was Branden Gallia, the 28-year-old store manager of the Starbucks on 42nd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues in Manhattan.
Gallia’s first management job was as an electronics department manager at a Walmart store in Texas. He left there to take an assistant store manager position at Starbucks before moving to New York City. Branden is one of the most impressive team leaders I have ever witnessed in action.
I was anxious to understand Branden’s leadership approach, so after hounding him for weeks he finally invited me to meet with him in the backroom of his store. We sat down at a relatively unruly desk positioned amidst a dizzying array of shelves holding rows of paper binders, mountains of empty cups, and countless boxes of product. An hour and a half passed as though it were ten minutes.
Peppering Gallia with dozens of questions that morning, three themes emerged that capture his leadership philosophy. Each serves as guiding principles that inform Branden’s day to day approach. Let’s call it The Branden Way.
First, understand what your customers need and then build a team to deliver it to them.
When Gallia took over the store two years ago, he fired the staff he inherited in its entirety. After giving them all a chance, not one employee survived. I asked why.
“They couldn’t give me what I needed.”
As we explored this further, it struck me that Branden has perfect clarity on what his customers need and, in turn, what he needs out of his team.
“In New York City, I hire for three things: speed, the ability for me to show you how to do something once and you’ve got it, and then friendliness. At my store in Texas, what mattered most was how employees would engage with people. That’s de-prioritized in this store because 90 out of 100 of our customers here don’t care if you smile at them. They just want to get in and out in less than two minutes. They don’t want their routines messed with. Unlike in Texas, they don’t come in for experiences. They find those on their personal time.”
So personality doesn’t matter in your hiring?
“Well, we try to give our customers speed and personality. But speed matters most.”
With clarity around the competencies he hires for, I asked Gallia how he identifies these characteristics out of a batch of job seekers. The short answer is that Branden essentially throws out the script. “Starbucks has a set of behavioral questions we are supposed to ask. Honestly, I don’t use them. Instead, I start with a conversation. I get to know them. ‘Hey, I’m just a regular guy and we are having a chat, so don’t be nervous.’”
But a chat can only go so far. How do you identify strong applicants who will be able to deliver what you need for your customers?
“That’s easy. I ask, ‘Why are you here?’ If they communicate that they want a job, they need x amount per hour, etc., they’re wrong for my store. If they make me feel like they appreciate people, they’re in.” Branden continued, “Look, the pool of applicants we get is the same one as those applying for fast food restaurants. We have to develop our team into people who care about our customers.”
Pushing a bit further, I asked, “If forced to narrow it down to the one most important characteristic you look for in a hiring decision, what would it be? “
Branden paused – smirking a bit out of the side of his mouth – and then responded, “All of my peer store managers think I’m crazy. They say I hire the misfits.” He then went off the record, sharing his very personal story and the difficult challenges he has individually confronted. “Look, I know what it’s like to struggle in life. I like to help people get their lives on the right track.”
Branden shared the story of one team member who came into the store looking for a job while she was homeless, literally sleeping on a bench. The applicant caught Branden’s attention because she was smiling and seemed really eager. “I made her jump through hoops.” He continued, “Look, everyone will say, ‘I really want this job.’ That’s a line. I made her prove it to me, coming back multiple times before offering her the job despite a very long commute from her neighborhood.”
Branden then added, “But Mark is my biggest claim to fame. I hired him before I opened the store and trained him myself: from barista, to barista trainer, to shift supervisor, to assistant store manager. He’ll be a store manager within a year. He was a misfit too. I look at him now and think, ‘Wow, he’s just like me.'”
Second, develop passion in your employees. Help them tap into a deeper motivation.
In the social good sector where I’ve spent most of my career, passion for the work is largely built-in. Even when performing the most mundane of tasks, employees can reflect for a moment on the question, “Why am I here?” and quickly tap into the motivation behind their work.
The same is not always true in the for-profit sector. The linkage to purpose is often much less clear. As my good friend (and former boss) Aaron Hurst argues in his book The Purpose Economy, in the new economic era “value lies in establishing purpose for employees…through serving needs greater than their own. It is driven by connecting people to their purpose.”
Gallia inherently gets Hurst’s point. Branden explained, “I have always been able to get loyalty out of people who work for me because I build in a sense of pride. You get loyalty by creating passion within your employees.”
I asked, “What does passion at work look like for a barista?”
“If it’s just about that cup of coffee you won’t get your people excited, so I tell them, ‘I need you to make somebody’s day today.’ If I can help them make a connection with our customers, it will give them a sense of pride in their work.”
Branden’s core instructive to his team: “We’re going to help people today. We’re not just going to serve them a cup of coffee.”
While that is clearly Gallia’s clarion call to his team, I believe Branden’s motivating passion – his imperative, as Hurst would call it – is different. For Gallia, it’s about helping people get their lives on the right track and then growing them into their fully actualized selves.
Third, model for your employees what you need them to be.
“As a leader,” I asked, “what do you consider your secret sauce?”
Branden’s response reflected what I had observed day after day from the other side of the counter at his store. “It’s got to be about people and modeling what I want to see in them. Everything I ask them to do, I do and show them myself.”
The idea of training a new employee through onboarding materials, instructional videos, or a training department would be foreign to Gallia. He believes in an up-close-and-personal approach. “My boss once asked me to go to other stores in the district. He wanted me to talk to their employees to help them elevate. But that just doesn’t work. They can’t do what they’re told. They have to see it.”
When I asked Branden to tell me his biggest moment of pride as a leader, without hesitating he reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. “Actually, I think that just happened yesterday. One of the guys at my last store called while I was working and left me a voice message.” He pushed play:
“Hey B. I just wanted you to know I got assistant manager. I wouldn’t have got itwithout you, man. Every day you coached me to do the right thing, play by the book, be the best I can. You’re one of the main reasons I got that job and I wanted to say thanks.”
I asked Branden to tell me more. “Oh, he was a barista – very shy but very talented. His mom was one of our regular customers and asked me one day if I’d hire her son. I sat down with him and decided to give it a try. Obviously he was a good bet.”
At that moment – perhaps with a bit of serendipity hovering in the air – Mark, the assistant manager who Branden reference as his claim-to-fame earlier, walked in:
“What’s up, Mark?”
“Just got a $40 tip.”
“Yeah, the customer gave it to me but I put it in the tip jar.”
“Was the tip for you or the team?” Branden asked.
“He said it was for me, but I put it in the jar.”
“That’s awesome. You’re a good man!”
As Mark walked out, Gallia continued his thought, “My ultimate goal is to effect change in people. It gives me a sense of pride. If I’m a worker bee, I won’t feel a sense of contentment at the end of the night. Filing the right paperwork just doesn’t do it for me. But if I can help someone get to another level, my job is completely fulfilling.”
With time having run out 30 minutes earlier, I fired off one last question. “In your view, what makes your Starbucks different from every other Starbucks in New York City?”
Then — silence. Branden sat quietly thinking about the question. The phone rang and he ignored it. The stillness went on for at least 90 full seconds. He even chuckled to himself at one point, but said nothing. It dawned on me that he wanted to get his answer just right.
At that moment – mercifully breaking the silence – another one of his team members walked in. He shot the question to her: “Asia, what makes us different from every other Starbucks in the city?”
Without hesitation, Asia fired back, “We’re fast.”
He replied, “There aren’t other fast stores in the city?”
“They’re fast, but we’re faster. Plus, we’re more friendly. We’re pulling customers from other coffee shops in the neighborhood. They come over and complain about the other stores: not fast, not friendly, don’t smile.”
Building on Asia’s comments, Branden was finally ready to offer his own. “It’s bigger than that. There are other stores that have some of those things. Here we have a level of commitment to doing our best, even when we fall short of it. We have intrinsic motivation behind our service. The training is the other big difference.”
Asia nodded in agreement and headed back to the front to make the day of yet another busy New Yorker.
Robert B. Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, LLC, a consulting practice headquartered in Manhattan.