Mackey vs. Schultz: Compare-and-Contrast CEOs

It was by coincidence that I recently read both a profile of Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey and an interview with Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz. The Mackey piece appeared in The New Yorker in January — I happened to score this copy from the magazine swap at the dump a couple of weeks ago — and the Schultz interview is in the current Harvard Business Review.

Both firms receive a greater percentage of my income than I’d like to admit though I can rationalize it through my insistence on fair trade coffee, organic veggies, grass fed beef, and all the rest. At the end of my reading adventure I found myself enthusiastic to give more of my business to Starbucks and feeling far less sanguine about Whole Foods.  I thought about this for a bit — I’m a writer and know that some people give a better interview than others. I also admit to having a bad feeling about Mackey ever since he tried to charge a fee when I asked him to speak while I was at Harvard Business Publishing (the only sitting CEO ever to do so — and he also wanted an administrative fee to cover the work of his assistant in arranging his travel and processing the paperwork). His stealth online commenting didn’t sit well either. I never thought much about Schultz except when thinking that celebrity CEOs tend to get too much credit for their organizations’ success.

Based on these two pieces, Schultz seems to believe in and act on behalf of values that are bigger than himself; Mackey appears to see himself as the ultimate embodiment of the values of Whole Foods. The distinction is important and I have increasingly come to see the ability to embrace values and interests bigger than the self and getting others to embrace them as well as the very essence of leadership. I got the feeling that Mackey hoped the I, and the rest of his customers, can someday live up to his ideal; Schultz seemed focused on helping his customers and workers attain the heights to which they aspire. The title of the HBR piece says it all: “We had to own the mistakes.” Owning up to accountability and responsibility are essential if one is to lead.

I’m still happy to have a Whole Foods within walking distance as are better than most at everything from vegetable selection to worker compensation, but I’d welcome a change at the top. On the other hand, I am glad to have Schultz at the helm at Starbucks and will feel better as I quaff my latte knowing that he refused to cut worker health care benefits during the downturn. It was just one of the ways that he stayed focused on long-term value (and values) and stood up to the demands of investors during the turnaround. I have no such confidence that Mackey would show similar strength.

What do you think about the CEOs value to the brand? Am I making too much of the actions of either Schultz or Mackey?

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