The new chief executive of Starbucks plans to don the green apron and work alongside employees in the company’s cafes once a month.


Laxman Narasimhan on Sept. 13 in Seattle. Stephen Brashear/Associated Press, file

In a letter to employees Thursday, Laxman Narasimhan, who officially took the helm at the coffee giant this week, said his “immersive experience” training at dozens of Starbucks stores, manufacturing plants and support centers in the past six months had helped shape his understanding of the employee and customer experience as he prepared to succeed Howard Schultz as CEO. Narasimhan said he plans to continue working in the company’s cafes for monthly half-day shifts as he embarks on a mission to “refound” Starbucks.

It is unusual for CEOs of large corporations to work side-by-side with rank-and-file employees on a regular basis. A 2018 study from professors at Harvard Business School found that CEOs spend, on average, 6 percent of their time with front-line employees, compared with 72 percent in meetings.

“CEOs face a real risk of operating in a bubble and never seeing the actual world their workers face,” the authors wrote. “Spending time with the rank and file, and with savvy external front line constituencies, is also an indispensable way to gain reliable information on what is really going on in the company and in the industry.”

Neil Saunders, managing director of analytics company GlobalData, said that all retail CEOs should consider spending some time at “the coal face of their business.”

“Some currently do, many don’t,” Saunders said. “Interacting with customers, talking to team members and seeing how things work aids understanding and improves decision-making. It basically helps ensure that policy is not made from an ivory tower.”

Narasimhan will be doing his front-line shifts as Starbucks faces unrest in its workforce, with employees unionizing at 288 of the company’s 9,000 corporate-owned stores. On Wednesday, employees at 100 Starbucks cafes staged a work stoppage, and scores of union baristas gathered in Seattle to present demands that include a nationwide starting wage of $20 an hour.

Starbucks declined to respond to a question from The Washington Post about how much Narasimhan would be paid during his monthly in-store shifts.

The company has been battling charges of unfair labor practices in Buffalo, where Starbucks unionization efforts first took hold. Starbucks showed “a general disregard for the employees’ fundamental rights,” National Labor Relations Board Judge Michael A. Rosas wrote in a 220-page order released this month that accused the company of “egregious and widespread” violations of federal labor law.

“The most meaningful gesture incoming CEO Laxman Narasimhan could make to workers is to come to the bargaining table to negotiate with us in good faith,” Michelle Eisen, a barista at a Buffalo Starbucks who was an organizer at the chain’s first unionized store, said in a statement to The Post. “We don’t need executives to make drinks, we need them to respect our legal right to organize a union and have a real voice in this company.”

In Thursday’s letter, Narasimhan said the company must work to improve the experience for employees, “including long-term hiring and retention, and continuing our investment in partner wages and store operations.”

Starbucks Workers United, which represents more than 7,500 employees at hundreds of stores, said the group hopes Narasimhan’s commitment to spending consistent time alongside front-line employees “is a sign that he’s willing to change Starbucks’ relationship with workers and forge a new path forward with our union.”

In recent decades, there’s been a shift in what workers want to see from their leaders, according to Anthony Nyberg, professor of management at the University of South Carolina and a scholar with the Academy of Management.

Whereas in the 1980s and ’90s it was typical for executives to remain aloof and take a more “despotic” approach to leadership, “now there’s pretty good evidence that we want our leaders to be more authentic and more approachable,” Nyberg said.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Narasimhan is committing to working alongside employees at a time when there’s been “turmoil and strife” in the front-line parts of Starbucks workforce, Nyberg said. For leaders who are new to organizations, it’s especially important to demonstrate a willingness to listen and get an understanding of how a company operates before making changes, he said.

“That sends a pretty strong signal to everybody that he cares enough to go engage with the people that are actually doing all the hard work,” Nyberg said.