Steve Jobs’s Bold Advice to Howard Schultz: An Intense Moment in Leadership

In a recent episode of the Acquired podcast, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz shared a striking encounter with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs from 2008. At a critical juncture for Starbucks, Schultz sought counsel from Jobs, who was renowned for his transformative vision and uncompromising leadership style. The interaction between these two influential business leaders highlights a dramatic episode of tough love and radical advice.

Schultz recounted that his first interaction with Jobs began with a phone call arranged to discuss a future collaboration between Starbucks and Apple on mobile ordering and other technological innovations. Despite never having met Jobs in person, Schultz felt the urgency and importance of the discussion. Jobs invited Schultz to Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, where their conversation took an unexpected and intense turn.

Known for his preference for walking meetings, Jobs led Schultz around the Apple campus as they talked. Schultz opened up about the challenges Starbucks was facing at the time, including financial struggles and leadership issues. Mid-conversation, Jobs abruptly interrupted Schultz, delivering a stark piece of advice: “You go back to Seattle, and you fire everyone on your leadership team.”

Schultz, taken aback by the blunt suggestion, questioned the feasibility of such a drastic measure. Jobs, however, was adamant, raising his voice and emphasizing, “Fire all those people; that’s what I would do.” Schultz expressed his concern about the practicality of firing his entire senior team, wondering who would manage the ongoing work. Jobs reassured him, albeit forcefully, predicting that within six to nine months, the leadership team would be replaced regardless.

Despite his initial resistance, Schultz eventually witnessed Jobs’s prediction come true. Within the next year, all but one member of the Starbucks leadership team had departed. Reflecting on the incident during a later conversation with Jobs, Schultz was reminded of the time lost by not acting sooner. Jobs’s assertion was clear: Schultz could have achieved significant progress had he implemented the changes more swiftly.

This exchange between Schultz and Jobs underscores a fundamental principle in leadership—sometimes, transformative change requires bold and decisive actions. Jobs’s intense delivery and unwavering conviction highlighted his belief in making difficult decisions for the greater good. Schultz’s eventual acknowledgment of Jobs’s advice underscores the impact that visionary leaders can have on each other, even if the guidance initially seems harsh or impractical.

Schultz’s career at Starbucks, marked by multiple tenures as CEO, reflects his commitment to steering the company through turbulent times. His second stint from 2008 to 2018, during which this encounter with Jobs occurred, was particularly challenging due to the economic downturn. Schultz’s return in 2022 to stabilize the company post-pandemic further exemplifies his dedication to Starbucks’s success.

The story of Jobs’s vehement advice to Schultz serves as a powerful reminder of the difficult decisions that leaders must sometimes make. It illustrates how frank, albeit abrasive, counsel can catalyze significant organizational change, driving companies toward innovation and resilience.

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