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The Rungs of Learning with Michelle Burns, Head of Global Coffee, Tea and Cocoa at Starbucks

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

I've known Michelle forever and have always been inspired by her impressive ability to blend family life with a very demanding job in a way that looks easy. Instead of letting parenthood squelch her zest for adventure and travel, she embraced it, taking her kids to far flung places at a young age.

After years leading Starbucks' external business and channel development, she pivoted from salesperson to buyer - of coffee, tea and cocoa for the largest coffee chain in the world.

Moving from one male dominated industry to another, Michelle stayed true to what matters most to her - providing space for employees to bring their whole self to work and advocating for responsibility in our communities to make the world a better place.

Enjoy this month's Rungs of Learning interview with Michelle Burns!

You've been at the same company almost your entire career. How have you continued to grow and learn in the same organization all of this time?

It starts with interest and curiosity, not just in the work I'm doing but work that is around me and that is available for me to be part of. This requires that I be self driven because I have to search out those opportunities I can learn from and contribute to. It puts me in situations I'm less comfortable with too and I sometimes ask why I'm at the table but I remember why I'm at the table - because I have something to add.

I'd also say I've been part of a start up this whole time. I may have been with the same company for over twenty-five years but I've had fifteen different roles. For example, when I went from two decades in business development to leading coffee, that was a big shift. I had to have support, relationships and sponsors and build up credibility that I could make this change and be successful.

How have you leveraged external networking or experiences to support your growth and learning as a leader?

It all builds on the principles of relationships (personal or business) which has always been important to me - relationships with shared goals become the connector.

Doing that outside of the company has been where a lot of my step change growth has happened. Whether it be in the direct industry or an adjacent one (such as food and beverage or social impact), building relationships and getting involved externally has completely helped me fuel my understanding of how business works more broadly.

One specific example was when I became a part of Google Food Lab. It created an incredible group of peers from all different companies with a broad perspective of working together to make the world a better place. We looked at things like food systems and climate change and it opened my eyes to all of the incredible talent out there. I could also see how the dots connected to get things done.

That led to how I went on a trip of a lifetime to the Global Seed Vault. That truly changed my career trajectory. It was at that moment that I determined that I wanted to make a difference and an impact and I saw coffee as the path to do that.

How have you coached your teams to get external perspective to support their development?

It doesn't always have to be external but, as a leader, you have to create space and set the example that personal development and growth beyond your day to day work is vital.

Then, I coach people that it has to be an interest that matches theirs and they need to actively participate and be engaged to get the richness out of it.

One other thing I coach my team to do is build their own board of directors and purposefully have individuals that can challenge them, advocate for them and also be the ones to help them find their own clarity. And it can't be just one person and should be a mix depending on what they're working on at that period of time.

Lastly, I tell people that they can't do it all at once and need to make time for the things that are meaningful to them.

You told me once that you had to navigate imposter syndrome at times in your career. Tell me a little bit about how you worked through that?

I'm not sure if I'd call it imposter syndrome exactly but it was more about getting comfortable in my own skin. I needed to put myself in uncomfortable positions and it doesn't mean I didn't fail part of the time.

I also spent a lot of time on what is important to me, my purpose and intentions. It seemed to occur gradually and then suddenly when I went through an executive athlete program. It was focused on fulfilling your potential and high performance in all aspects of your life - work, mind and body. It was just at the right time for me and was a game changer.

It helped me understand my purpose more clearly and that my philosophy is all about teams and relationships and working in partnership with people. I believe that the "we" goes further in the end even if it might take longer to get there.

Are there any other developmental moments or stories that come to mind that strengthened your leadership skills and positioned you to take on a broader leadership role?

Earlier in my career, I can remember experiences of being pulled into work like organizational design where I didn't have the expertise in the process but I had subject matter that was valued. It's here where I recognized I had trust and credibility with others and could contribute to things like merger and acquisition work.

What's something that you've learned from each of your kids that impacts how you show up as a leader?

For Kaija (17), it's empathy. First it was about becoming a mother and learning how to balance all the priorities (note that I'm not a work life balance person but a work life integration person). Watching Kaija grow and how empathy is in her being has taught me a lot because I learn from watching her and how she treats and thinks about others.

For Mason (15), he's a deep guy. It's about his curiosity and having no inhibitions when he wants to learn something. He asks a lot of questions that are straightforward to feed his curiosity when it's a topic that he's interested in.

What is one thing you are prioritizing your on learning right now?

Personally, I'm focused on wellness, physical and mental. I don't know why it took a pandemic and working a flexible schedule to realize what this could look like integrated into my life. Yoga at noon could have happened for the last 30 years but it's happening now. Being on the elliptical while viewing something work related is totally possible.

Mentally, I've really appreciated meditation but now I've been able to really form a practice the last six months. I use Headspace every day, even for just ten minutes.

Professionally, I've been focused on all the space that is DEI, particularly in the coffee industry and how do we bring more women in. I serve on a board that has four women out of thirty board seats. For the first time, I'm spearheading an equity task force for that organization. At first I was like "I'm not skilled for this" but, if not me, who? We're working on finding opportunities for women to grow and mentoring with intentionality. It's about creating an environment we want to work in and learning to be an ally and a voice.

Thank you Michelle for sharing your incredible rungs of learning and for always making sure I'm always well stocked with the best coffee in the world.

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