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We got a number of emails yesterday responding to our piece about Jim Donald, the just-departed CEO of Starbucks. MNB waxed rhapsodic about him – as both a person and a leader – but at least a couple of people disagreed with our assessment.

One MNB user wrote:

Never thought Jim Donald was the right guy for that job. Didn't think he was right for Pathmark either.

He'll probably end up as CEO of General Electric next. But I don't think he's right for that job either.

Funny how that works.

You are entitled to your opinion, but you are wrong.

And another MNB user wrote:

My impression of Jim Donald is quite different. I've been in the audience a number of times when he gave very polished speeches at supermarket conferences. His talk was all about what he did as a CEO. How he visited stores in the middle of the night, and surprised the crew. How he changed this, and did that. What his philosophy was. What he demanded, and what he appreciated. Every other sentence was all about "I did, I said, I, I, I."

It smacked me as a politician running for office - so full of himself. Didn't anyone else count where he worked?

But that's ok - not everyone likes my heroes.

Once again, dead wrong. I’ve rarely met a CEO who was as interested in and concerned about the people who work for him. And I have an 18-year-old who would vouch for that.

These were minority views, however. A different perspective is held by people who actually worked with him

MNB user Eleanor Reidy wrote:

I just wanted to say that I could not agree with you more on your description of Jim Donald. I worked with Jim when he was in charge of the Eastern Division of Safeway Inc. in the mid 90s. He was one of the most talented and enjoyable executives I have worked with. Jim never forgot a name and spoke to everyone he saw. He made everyone feel that they were important to the organization.

I am sorry to hear about what has happened to Jim here, but I’m sure he’s be back somewhere and that somewhere will be lucky to have him!

MNB user Chuck Barbee wrote:

Kevin, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about Mr. Donald…he is the real deal, and he will land on his feet and continue to make retailing a better industry. I was lucky to catch one of his talks, about the same time he took over the Pathmark operation, he explained he wanted to get a “feel for the operation” so one night he shows up at one of the locations and explains to the night stock crew leader he was a new hire to stock…wow, wasn’t that enlightening! How many CEO’s today would go thru the same fact finding mission? Good luck Jim Donald!

MNB user Tony Angelini wrote:

I am currently in store mgmt with Pathmark and was a department mgr. with Pathmark when Jim was the CEO of Pathmark.

He was a "people person", genuine, kind, and knowledgeable. I used to email him suggestions on merchandising, safety issues, etc. and he would respond almost immediately and take those suggestions many times into consideration. When he visited the stores he would make it point to speak to ALL the employees and customers. He was missed after he left Pathmark. I wish him nothing but the best of luck. I wish I could tell him that.

I think you just did.

MNB user Joe Burns wrote:

I have always been a Starbucks fan. Both as a customer and as a premium brand marketer. An excellent company/brand/product/experience. I have also been a Jim Donald fan since I got to know him during his time at Pathmark. He is the real deal.

(I too have occasionally touched base with him to share noteworthy Starbucks service observations as I travel. And he does appreciate it.)

When I went to Starbucks today (twice) I felt like something was missing. If I wasn't addicted to the stuff, I'd protest by not going there. But since that's not an option...

One thing I know for sure. We have not seen the last of Jim Donald.

And MNB user Art Turock wrote:

When you meet anyone who knows Jim Donald, their first association is "great people skills." What a great brand message for a leader!

Last May when I asked Jim, what was the factor behind Starbucks high retention and quality performance, he said, "One word – Engagement. If it is at a level that is spinning positively, you are in the game. Engagement means emotionally connected to your job."

When my home office was obliterated by a weeklong power outage last winter, I set up satellite office in the Juanita Starbucks. With hours to observe, I marveled at the barista’s consistent quality of engagement with customer after customer. When I shared my observations with Jim, his instant response was to share the feedback with the store manager, along with a congratulations letter.

During Jim Donald's tenure, Starbucks benefited greatly, and his influence will linger.


And, there were some other thoughts on the broader issues. One MNB user wrote:

I like what you wrote about Jim Donald - characteristics of a good leader. But being a good leader, doesn't mean your decisions are all correct. "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should." He didn't understand the Starbuck's brand DNA - Maybe he was so interested in his employees that he forgot about the brand's responsibility to the customer experience.

And MNB user Andrew M. Casey wrote:

Kevin, I was struck this morning reading your comments on Jim Donald's exit. Given all the recent discussion you have hosted regarding choices being made by retailers on effectiveness versus efficiency, I was surprised a bit to see you (seemingly) come down on the side of efficiency with your comment about "... size requires efficiency and some level of automation". Of course it does, but isn't that the point?

Determining where to draw that line may be the most difficult decision a manager makes. I have a great deal of respect for Jim Donald, but clearly, the board felt he had put that line in the wrong place.

If I gave the impression that I was favoring efficiency over effectiveness, then I was being imprecise in my use of language.

What I was trying to say was that the simple reality is that if you want to achieve a certain level of growth – at least in part because that’s what investors demand – then one has no choice but to make certain choices…and the real challenge is to figure out how to maintain cultural imperatives when doing so. I, personally, would always put culture first…but that’s probably why I’ll never run a public company. (Actually, there are a ton of reasons…that’s just one of them.) I was trying to address the tensions…not choose efficiency over effectiveness.

I’ll have some more thoughts on this in MNB Radio tomorrow.

KC's View: