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Changing the Corporate Culture: Herrick Ross

Herrick Ross (back row, center) smiles with a group of Starbucks employees.  (Courtesy of Herrick Ross)
Herrick Ross (back row, center) smiles with a group of Starbucks employees. (Courtesy of Herrick Ross)

Herrick Ross had no intention of leaving the Marine Corps in 2014. A master sergeant with 22 years of service, he was working on infantry gender-integration issues at the Pentagon and was slated to move into one of the coveted legislative fellowship spots on Capitol Hill.

But during a work break one day in the summer of 2014, he started to clean out his LinkedIn inbox, deleting messages, including four from Starbucks corporate recruiters. And when he reached a fifth and final such message, he paused, clicked open, read the message and responded that he'd like to learn more. His life -- and the lives of hundreds of military spouses and veterans -- changed forever because of that decision.

"Sometimes, the path chooses you rather than you try to force the path to happen," he said.

Ross has been selected as one of Military.com's 2019 Changemaker of the Year finalists for his work on the Starbucks talent acquisition team. He has helped formulate the company's wildly successful veteran and military spouse hiring program, becoming a thought leader in the space and paving the way for similar programs elsewhere.

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Military.com's Military Spouse Changemaker of the Year recognition seeks to identify and celebrate individuals -- both spouses and community members -- who have made a sizable, direct impact on a specific area of military life. Ross's work and presence on behalf of Starbucks in the military spouse space goes above and beyond that of just a job. He has made advocating for veteran and spouse employment a lifestyle.

Ross and a team of other recruiters have helped take the company beyond its initial 2013 goal of hiring 10,000 spouses and veterans by 2018. In early March 2017, it surpassed that and upped the goal to 25,000 by 2025. They've recently hit 22,000, Ross said, well ahead of where they need to be to reach their target.

Hiring veterans and military spouses isn't as simple as it might seem. Ross and his team have faced a cultural battle both in the Starbucks corporation and within the military community. How do you sell every hiring manager on the value of bringing on and then training a population stereotyped as transient or volatile? And how do you convince spouses and veterans to seek a job in food service?

Tackling the ongoing challenge, Ross said, is like managing an octopus with its many tentacles.

"We know where the head is: We want to hire these individuals, and we want [them] to see us as a great space ... that finds value in their experiences," he said.

One of the company's efforts had to be in teaching recruiters and hiring managers with no military experience about veterans and spouses.

"We had to figure out, how do we get the hiring managers to see the value of the leadership experience that someone has in uniform, even though they've never worked in retail or customer service?" Ross said. "We had to educate the recruiters and hiring managers to look at military spouse resumes differently. That meant, don't think of this person as a job hopper, think of them as a value adder because they have this broad experience."

The next effort was to create a company atmosphere where those with a military background not only find a welcoming space, but can display pride in service. So the company created military community-designated stores, rolled out special apron uniforms for spouses and veterans, and made it clear that, by self-identifying during hiring as a military community member, they wouldn't just not be discredited, they would receive extra support.

"In celebrating that, we showed that it was OK for candidates to be proud that they are a military spouse, be proud of service to home and country," he said. "And because we have so many interactions with customers, they celebrate that as well."

But Ross said he doesn't see himself individually as a changemaker.

"I just think that this, for me, is the example that I wish everyone would set," he said. "It's not just about me. ... I am just doing what I think is right, and that's the guiding principle that I've set."

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