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The Health Scare That Revitalized Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson

A cancer diagnosis prompted reflection, a renewed commitment to joy—and a chance to take the reins from legendary Starbucks founder Howard Schultz.

The Health Scare That Revitalized Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson
By engaging often with employees nationwide, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson says that he has learned to “listen with my heart.” [Photo: Herring & Herring; Set Designer: Wunderkind; Grooming: Kim White, Zuleika Viera]

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson took the reins of the global coffee giant less than a year ago, after spending eight years on the company’s board. In addition to the pressures of following a legendary founder, Howard Schultz (who remains the company’s executive chairman), Johnson is responsible for keeping Starbucks agile as it seeks to make its 27,000 cafés more experiential and digital. He has a unique perspective on the company’s mission to “inspire and nurture the human spirit.”

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“About six years ago, I was diagnosed with melanoma during a routine physical. I was dealing with my cancer and trying to fulfill my responsibilities as CEO of [network security company] Juniper Networks, and I was in San Francisco getting ready to board a flight to Europe. I had to cancel a doctor’s appointment to make that trip. I paused and asked myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I made a decision that for the rest of my life, however long or short that may be, I would only do things that are joyful and with people I love. [Some time after that] I was having lunch with Howard, and he asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ And in some ways you could say, well, that’s a simple question, but it was a deep question.

“Howard and I are two different people. I’ve got 32 years in tech. He’s got decades as a retail merchant. It’s a very complementary relationship. My office is connected to his by a little door—not a little door; it’s actually a pretty big door. Every once in a while he opens that door and he sticks his head in and he says, ‘Kevin, what are you doing?’ ‘Well, I’m just sitting here working, Howard. What are you doing?’ And I know that we are about to go on some wonderful adventure together.”

This story was adapted from the Fast Company Innovation Festival.