The coffee company’s former chief counsel can be both “supportive” and “stern,” say admirers, crediting Helm with an engaged style and commitment to diversity.

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It’s hard to make an impact at Starbucks’ annual shareholders meetings, where the charismatic Howard Schultz holds forth and a surprise musical guest entertains an audience of thousands.

But Lucy Helm, the company’s former top attorney who last month became its human-resources head, did just that this past spring.

Taking the stage in March at McCaw Hall after Schultz had given his last presentation as company CEO — he’s now executive chairman — and singer-songwriter Leon Bridges had performed, Helm managed to get the audience laughing at the most mundane of meeting items.

Lucy Helm

Title: Executive vice president, chief partner officer (i.e. head of HR) at Starbucks

Former positions: Executive vice president, general counsel at Starbucks; principal at Riddell Williams law firm; assistant director and advocacy director at Center for Accessible Living in Louisville, Kentucky

Education: J.D., Brandeis School of Law, University of Louisville; B.A., political science, University of Louisville

Age: 60

Family: Single

Lives in: Seattle

Volunteer work: Board of directors, Mercy Corps and Washington YMCA Youth & Government Program; Campaign for Equal Justice at Legal Foundation of Washington; Parkview Services

Hobbies: Attending outdoor festivals and fairs, reading, baking, music

Source: Lucy Helm, Starbucks

“I realize in my heart of hearts, that this is the part of the meeting that you value the most, anxiously considering the results of your shareholder vote on the proposals in the proxy statement,” she said, before riffing on her nervousness in reading important results after recent snafus by presenters at the Oscars and Miss Universe pageant.

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“So, you guys,” she said, holding up a smartphone, “if I get anything wrong, texting seems to be working, and I think tweeting is big in the administration right now, so please — let me know and I won’t embarrass myself.”

That warm, down-to-earth persona should serve Helm well as she takes on the position of “chief partner officer” — Starbucks uses the term “partner” rather than “employee” — heading human resources for a company that employs 330,000 people worldwide.

Her appointment comes at a key time as the company faces major challenges including slowing sales growth that has disappointed some Wall Street investors. Traffic at U.S. stores grew just 1 percent in the most recent quarter after two quarters in which it was flat.

Some employees, meanwhile, have complained about persistent store understaffing and inequities in the company’s new parental-leave policy.

Kevin Johnson, who succeeded Schultz as CEO in April, has reportedly made a push for baristas to form better emotional connections with customers — a move that angered some who say it puts a greater burden on already overworked baristas.

In appointing Helm, 60, to her new position, Johnson said she is “ideal for this role,” citing her comprehensive understanding of Starbucks’ culture and operations gained over 18 years at the company, her advocacy for diversity and her passion for supporting employees.

“Lucy also is a leader who listens, and she comes to her new role with deep connections to partners in the field, at the support center, and in our plants,” he said.

Headed west

Helm grew up one of six siblings in a large Catholic family in Louisville, Kentucky. Her father owned a small janitorial-service company while her mother raised the family.

A professor at the University of Louisville, where Helm graduated with a B.A. in political science, suggested she go to law school — something she hadn’t considered before.

After graduating, she worked for a law firm and a nonprofit in Louisville before moving to Seattle — “I picked it on a map. I needed to get out of Louisville. I wanted to go West.”

She became a principal and trial lawyer at Riddell Williams, but came to find law-firm life not the best fit.

“I love the academic part of being a trial lawyer,” she said. “But I didn’t like that you represented someone and solved their problem, then you moved on to the next person.”

She wanted to be part of figuring out why a problem arose so as to prevent it from happening again. And she hated the sales pitch aspect of wooing clients.

Helm set her sights on Starbucks, joining the company in 1999 and becoming its first full-time litigator. She worked her way up the ranks, becoming Starbucks’ general counsel in 2012, leading the company’s law and corporate-affairs department.

”What I didn’t realize until I got here is that I’m good at leading and managing,” said Helm, who says she’s proud of having built what she characterized as one of the strongest corporate legal teams in the country and one that’s committed to pro bono work and diversity.

Helm herself is committed to service. She volunteers with a number of organizations including the Legal Foundation of Washington, which distributes money to nonprofit organizations that provide civil legal aid for low-income people.

For global aid group Mercy Corps, where she serves on the board, Helm has connected the aid agency with the right people within Starbucks. That’s enabled Mercy Corps to provide services to more people working at tea and coffee plantations in India, Colombia and Guatemala, said Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps.

Within Starbucks, Helm’s commitment to diversity includes starting the company’s Global Inclusion Council, which brings company leaders together to draft diversity goals across the company’s many initiatives and departments.

Helm “genuinely cares and connects with people all the way up and all the way down an organization,” said Rob Porcarelli, assistant general counsel at Starbucks. “I’m always shocked at the people she knows in the building and knows well. Whether you’ve gotten a promotion or your parent dies — you’re going to get a handwritten note from Lucy.”

Helm is “supportive when she needs to be, stern when she needs to be,” he said. “At all times, she’s authentic and direct.”

When the email went out last month saying Helm had been appointed chief partner officer, “you could hear spontaneous outpouring of affection as the email hit inboxes,” Porcarelli said. “I’ve never seen that. Everyone wanted to congratulate her.”

 

Heather Jennings, recently promoted to director of operations and implementation at Starbucks headquarters, said Helm has kept in touch with her for 11 years, ever since Jennings was a store manager of the Starbucks at Seattle’s 23rd Avenue and South Jackson Street. Helm was a regular customer there, getting to know the baristas and telling Jennings when she noticed a barista being particularly helpful to customers.

 

That sort of attention to people is important as the company seeks to “keep great partners,” Jennings says.

Staffing complaints

Some employees are hoping she’ll pay similar attention to their frustrations.

A recent survey by online petition site Coworker.org of 184 self-identified U.S.-based Starbucks workers found that 89 percent said staffing levels were a problem.

Increasing use of mobile order-and-pay, in which customers order and pay for their drinks via the Starbucks mobile app, as well as drinks that take more time to prepare, such as the wildly popular Unicorn Frappuccino that was available briefly this spring, are also causing more work for some baristas.

“What I see happening now is a workforce buckling under the weight of expectation and tasks,” Jaime Prater, a shift manager for a Starbucks store in Rancho Cucamonga, California, wrote in an open letter to Starbucks leadership last month. “What was once an atmosphere that was relaxing for customers has turned into a battleground of ‘who’s order do we make first?’ or, ‘We don’t have enough time.’”

Prater had posted a petition last year about persistent understaffing at Starbucks stores. That petition has since garnered more than 18,000 signatures, while Prater has met with Starbucks corporate leaders.

“They are listening and I was informed of specifics in play that have yet to be fully revealed,” Prater said Thursday. But still, he believes there is a “disconnect in perspective between corporate and store-level employee.”

In Prater’s open letter, he praised the appointment of a chief partner officer as “a good beginning” but said it “isn’t the full answer, especially when that partner is culled from the corporate structure. There’s little trust there.”

Helm said her appointment was not a response to those issues specifically.

She also said she’s aware of the survey and petition and supports efforts underway to evaluate staffing in each store across the U.S. She said the company is seeing better employee-retention numbers and that she’ll continue to push company leaders to listen to employees to better understand and address their concerns.

There are those who found her move from top lawyer to top HR person initially curious.

“If you’re a lawyer, being a general counsel of a large, successful public company is a big deal. It’s a feather in your cap,” said Mark Hutcheson, a partner and chairman of the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm, who serves as co-chair with Helm on a fundraising campaign for the Legal Foundation of Washington. “Why would you set that aside to become essentially the senior leader of HR?”

But then he realized Helm was a logical fit, Hutcheson said.

For her part, Helm, who had served as interim head of human resources from March to July, said, “I don’t know that I identify as a lawyer. I identify as a leader.”

Plus, she found after taking on the interim role, “I loved the work. It energized me every day,” working to develop, support, retain and recognize people.

“This is a job that impacts every partner in the company,” she said, and is at “the heart of who we are. How our customers are served is how we treat and respect and develop our partners. I get to influence and lead that.”