Starbucks’ Jonny Jacobs on Psychological Safety Through Covid-19

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Recently, Starbucks EMEA finance director Jonny Jacobs opened up about what it was like growing up with a family member suffering from mental ill-health; an experience which has fundamentally shaped his perspective. You might expect this to have had a negative impact, but Jonny has boundless positivity.

An inspiring mental health advocate, with a passion for people development and building high performance teams, Jonny joined Starbucks just before lockdown.

In this interview for Make A Difference News, Jonny reveals the source of his positive energy, his secret for engaging stakeholders and his tips on leading with empathy as we navigate our way out of the pandemic.

You are increasingly leading the debate around mental health for business. How do you get people on board?

For me it comes back to how people perceive mental health. There are so many misconceptions and there is so much associated stigma. It really hit home to me in 2017 when pladis, the global snacking company I was with as Strategy and Transformation Director, signed the Time to Change Pledge.

At the time we were talking about mental health. I remember going around the business trying to align stakeholders with the plan. Every time I said mental health, I could feel the stigma in the room. Then I started to tweak the language. When we started to talk in a more positive way that differentiated mental health from mental ill-health – and actually started to talk about performance, resilience and role models such as sports people – we started to get a very different reaction.

The penny dropped that to get that stakeholder engagement, you had to get the messaging right. Then having left pladis and gone on to retailer Marks & Spencer and now Starbucks, I’ve realised that no matter what organisation we are part of, the language we use is fundamental.

You could argue that mental health should sit within Diversity and Inclusion, or be part of Health and Safety, or argue it’s an HR matter or for the wider business. Different approaches may suit different organisations, but it’s important to understand that it’s not just about ill-health. When I talk about mental fitness or mental wellness, it’s to broaden the perspective so that we’re looking at people as humans. It broadens our thinking about resilience and in-turn, could make us happier.

How do you keep your own mind fit and how does your approach translate to the workplace?

Covid-19 has really shone a light on this for me. I’m personally quite focused on positive and negative energy drivers; where I get positive or negative energy from.

I get positive energy from things like learning about something new, and being surrounded by friends and family. My wife is Persian which has brought so much diversity into our lives, not just through the cultural aspects but through the conversations and perspectives we hold as a family.  I get a lot of positive energy from being part of a diverse social circle and all the depth that brings to my own way of thinking.


Covid-19 has also shone a light on the importance of community. Feeling part of a community is really important to me. So, as well as having my friends outside of work, I’m spending a lot of time with my team and building that sense of community.

Sport is quite a big motivator for me too. I love playing tennis and a couple of weeks ago when I could play again, I was jumping up and down. It was brilliant being able to do something again that I really enjoy that also brings focus to my mental wellbeing.

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I encourage people to observe carefully where they get their energy from and also think about their wider sense of purpose. We’re doing a lot of work in the team right now about sense of purpose, sense of belonging and really creating that environment of psychological safety and togetherness.

Much of this translates between home and work. If you recognise the aspects that you value outside of work – like friends and family, community, purpose and learning – you can take a similar approach inside work.

You’ve advocated that leaders should show vulnerability. How do you balance this with building respect?

I always challenge myself to walk the talk on this. For years, possibly because I had a bit of a troubled childhood, I kept things quite close to my chest. It wouldn’t have been uncommon for someone to say “Jonny, you don’t open up”. Now I take a leap of faith and I expose my vulnerability. I’ll share how I’m feeling – whether that’s great or not so great.

Or I’ll share difficult situations or challenges where I’ve got things wrong. I think that by sharing that sets the tone and hopefully that then starts to create an environment where it’s OK to fail and there isn’t a blame culture.

We did a piece in our team where we all shared our personal values and some people shared their own story. Some of the things people revealed showed that they really opened up. It has helped to build a sense of community, of respect, of trust. I believe that good organisations that put psychological safety at the heart of their values really benefit.

How do you balance showing empathy with encouraging productivity?

It’s never been more important to empathise with people – whether it’s someone trying to home school, looking after a vulnerable family member. The pandemic has created so many different realities for people.

I have a huge amount of trust that people will do things to their human best. You have to start with the assumption that people are doing their best based on their capability. Then it’s about how we, as leaders, help them to reach their objectives. Somebody might not be delivering because more support or resource is needed, or help with reprioritising. But rarely is it because somebody could do more and they haven’t. That goes back to trust.

I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had some great managers to learn from. I’ve always been taught to have positive intent front of mind. If you have this front of mind then it often engenders a better relationship and a more positive result.

Organisations can do things to signpost that they are empathetic too. Take Mental Health Awareness Week. I feel so humbled to be a trustee of the Mental Health Foundation and I think they absolutely nailed it with ‘kindness’ as a theme. When organisations can start talking about words like ‘kindness’ – as Starbucks did – that really helps with empathy because kindness is a component of being empathetic.

What kind of new normal are you hoping for as we navigate our way out of the pandemic?

At a global level I think that we’re looking for a greater sense of community, a greater sense of togetherness and a greater sense of health and wellbeing. The heightened sense of kindness that we’ve seen also really resonated.

I’m asking myself what the role of business is to capture that and keep the momentum.

It’s about understanding what motivations lay behind the astonishing support of Captain Tom and volunteering to help the National Health Service. I get the sense people want to be more connected and to feel part of something that helps them feel more positive as well.

I’m also really conscious that people have had very different experiences during lockdown. That could potentially impact business leaders and the way they think about what type of culture they end up leading. Listening to everyone is going to be fundamental. We’re at a real stop and think moment.

You can hear more from Jonny at this year’s Mad World Summit on 8 October where he will be chairing a VIP Green Room as well as the ’12 Months of Action’ panel – all virtually of course. Watch out for part two of this interview too when we’ll find out more about Jonny as a person and how his childhood has shaped him.

In the meantime, this inspiring short video includes Jonny sharing his vision for mental health and wellbeing for 2020 and beyond. Watch it right to the end – it gives me goose bumps every time…

Mad World Summit 2019 Show Opener

About the author

Claire Farrow is the Global Director of Content and Programming for the Mad World and Make a Difference Summits. She also drives the content for Make A Difference News. Claire is on a mission to help every employer – large, medium and small – get the insight, inspiration and contacts they need to make real impact on workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing in their organisation. She has been freelance for more than 15 years. During that time, she has had the honour of working with many leading publishers, including the New York Times




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