How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Starbucks' ex-CEO leads a new team

February 28, 2012: 12:31 PM ET

It's a rare case when a Fortune 500 CEO gets ousted, and then the guy wearing the boot divvies out praise. But this is what happened after Howard Schultz fired Jim Donald as CEO of Starbucks (SBUX) and replaced him with himself. "You cannot meet a kinder human being," says Schultz about Donald in his book, Onward, about Starbucks' turnaround. "A natural talent for building relationships at every level of an organization"--plus "heart, conscience, and emotional intelligence," according to Schultz--made Donald a popular chief inside Starbucks, even as sales flagged and investors wanted change.

Turns out, Schultz was wise to reclaim Starbucks' reins in 2008 (Fortune named him 2011 Businessperson of the Year), but Donald, whom I've kept in touch with, seemed destined for another challenge. After four years below the radar--teaching, consulting, heading a Pacific Northwest grocery chain, Haggen--he was just named CEO of Extended Stay Hotels, a $1 billion-a-year, 9,100-employee chain that emerged from bankruptcy in 2010. The company is now owned by private equity firms Centerbridge Partners, Paulson & Co. and Blackstone Group (BX).

Hotels represent new territory for Donald, whose career has been in food retailing. (Hired by Sam Walton, he once spearheaded Wal-Mart's (WMT) early foray into superstores.) Now Donald is in stretch mode. Last month, as he was weighing various job options, he told me that he was testing his creative muscle by writing a story a day. He's written 13,000 words so far in 2012, he reports; most are about leading with love. "People want to know how they're doing," he says, summing up his philosophy. "If you let them know, then they might do more."

Donald believes that 99% of people "try to do the right thing. Recognize them for it." Here's his story about an encounter at Charlotte International Airport one January day when he was interviewing at Extended Stay's headquarters--now his corporate home.

Buy Some Love by Jim Donald, CEO, Extended Stay Hotels

Go ahead. Buy some love and make someone's day. It might even make your own day...

"Try the brownie brittle," Taquana told me as I checked out of Hudson News with the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

"No thanks," I replied.

"You'll like it," she repeated. Giving in, I mumbled as I crunched, "Not bad. But I need to wash it down with some Bojangles fried chicken." Coincidentally, a Bojangles was across the terminal hallway.

"Take all of us with you," Taquana replied.

"Let's go. Lock this place down," I yelled to all six of the Hudson News employees (knowing it would not/could not happen).

As I walked across the hallway, I looked back at the excitement that I stirred up and got in line to place my order for a two-piece dinner--a wing and a breast.

All of a sudden, my conscience popped up on my right shoulder: "What the ???" she said to me. "All your working life, you tell people to 'celebrate the little things that people do to try and make a difference.' Taquana, probably in her first retail gig, went out of her way to sell you brownie brittle, and you not only stiffed her, you teased her as well."

Brushing Ms. Conscience off my shoulder, I said to myself, 'I don't even work here...leave me alone." As I thought about another reason to tell my conscience off, I was rudely interrupted by the cashier asking me, quite impatiently, "Your order, sir?"

"A two-piece dinner," I said, hesitating. "And a 12-piece box with biscuits, please," I added.

Walking back into Hudson News, I sang out loud (and annoyed a few customers along the way): "Show me some love 'cause I got the Chicken!" What happened next is something I didn't expect--and not only made my day but also reinforced the power of celebrating the little things that people do: Suddenly, I was surrounded by six women giving me my first group hug...15 seconds, 20 seconds 25 seconds...Now the customers were really getting upset.

As I broke free, said goodbye, and headed to Gate B9, airport security asked me if I was the one causing trouble. "Yeah," I replied. "Just ask my girls."

And as I sat down at the gate to eat my chicken, Taquana walked over and introduced her supervisor, who said, "Thanks." I said, "You should be thanking Taquana. She is making some things happen at your store!"

Donald looked for Taquana twice this past week--including today at 5:45 a.m. when he landed on the red-eye from Seattle. "Tell Taquana I'm in town," he told the crew at Hudson News.

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