How To Use ‘STAR’ To Make Your Team Care Again

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How can you develop a STAR mindset?

You have the systems in place, the workflow is optimized, your professionalism is impeccable, and yet something seems to be missing. Your team and organization lack the feel of a real community. Is there a way to bring back empathy and allow your team to care again?

Subir Chowdhury is one of the world’s leading management thinkers and consultants. His Fortune 500 clients have saved literally billions of dollars by deploying his process improvement methodologies. His new bestselling book is called The Difference: When Good Enough Isn't Enough. I recently interview Subir for the LEADx podcast to find out more about how bringing kindness back to work can help keep profits and spirits up.

(The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)

Kevin Kruse: The opening of your book says: “If you saw a toothpick on the floor of your office or home, what would you do?” What’s the relevance of the toothpick?

Subir Chowdhury: Thank you for asking that question. One day, I had a meeting at 8:00 a.m. in the morning of a Fortune 100 company vice-president of quality of a very large automotive manufacturing firm. As soon as I walked into his office, he looked at me, and he asked me, “What would you do if you found a used toothpick on the floor?” I looked at him and said, “Hey, what’s going on, man? What kind of question is that? Why are you asking me this stupid question?”

He looked at me. He said, “No, Subir. It’s not stupid. It’s a very, very important question. Can you please answer?” I said, “Okay. Hey, before I answer, I wanted to ask you. Yesterday, the JD Power report came out. I understand your company did not do that well. Is your boss very upset with you? Is that what’s going on?” He said, “Subir, no, no, no. It’s nothing to do with that. I think we have much bigger problem.” He said, “You have been helping us on saving millions of dollars and helping us to make our process better and everything, but I think our problem is much deeper. That’s why I asked you the question.” I said, “If I find the used toothpick, obviously, I’d pick it up and put it in the dustbin.” He said, “Isn’t it true that you always put the used toothpick in the dustbin?”

He said, “Let me tell you something. Today, I went to my secretary. I asked the same question, and she said she would put it in the dustbin. I asked my direct reports, and they told me the same thing. Here I am. I had a 6:00 a.m. morning meeting with my CEO, and when I’m coming out after the meeting, I found a used toothpick, and I just picked it up. I was just looking at the toothpick, and I was just thinking, ‘That means maybe somebody had a meeting with the boss before, and maybe got mad or whatever, and put the toothpick on the floor.’”

Then, he looked at me, and he said, “Subir, if I can find a used toothpick in my organization’s floor, within 10 or 15 feet of my CEO’s office, that tells me why our quality is not good, why we are not doing good in JD Power. That means there might be thousands of toothpicks in all facets of the organization.”

The point he was making is that at the end of the day, if you can have the best process in place, but if your people do not have the caring mindset, then process alone will not do it. Let me tell you why I say that.

When I have been hired by—for the sake of discussion—two same-sized companies of the same industry, and one is getting 10 times return, and another one is getting 100 times return. Both of them hired me as a consultant, and they’re using my process improvement methodology. But still, one is only getting 10 times return, and the other is getting 100 times. What’s the difference? Why is that?

Initially, I thought that maybe my process is flawed. Then, after a lot of analysis, we find out that the majority of the people who have a caring mindset belong to the company, which is getting the 100 times return. Once I helped them how to solve one problem by using the processes or techniques, after that they are pretty much on their own feet. They can do the next project and then the next. The knowledge is there. They can solve five or six problems a year.

On the other company, which is getting 5 times or 10 times return, majority of the people after the fast project washed their hands. They said, “Oh my god, my boss told me to do this training. That’s why I came over here. I got this project done. Who cares? Life moves on.”

They don’t think, “This is a tool I received, and this is so fantastic. I solved this problem. I can use this tool in all my projects, and I can save more money for my company.”

That’s why I feel it’s so critical. I don’t think that organizations perform a good job for employees on how to build a caring mindset from all levels, from janitor to CEO, so that’s what this book is all about. As you know, in the book, I talk about the definition of caring mindset. You mentioned about the STAR philosophy, which stands for ‘Straightforward’, ‘Thoughtful’, ‘Accountable’, and ‘Resolve.’

Kruse: Tell us a little bit more about each of those. 

Chowdhury: What I find is that a lot of the time, a lot of companies, a lot of the employees at all levels, hide information. When someone is ‘Straightforward,’ you respect and receive the truth no matter how difficult it may be to hear. Think about what you are going to lose when you or the people around you seek the easy way out because you might be very afraid to be straightforward. See, human beings know that mistakes can happen, but the sad part is that if you hide that information, if you are not straightforward to your colleagues, then the consequences might be very, very large. Think about the Takata airbag issue. Somebody knew inside of the company, but it did not come to surface.

I don’t want to use the word dishonest, but if you lead a ‘Straightforward’ life, you will feel good. You will get some positive energy out of it. That showed the straightforwardness, and the reason why I mentioned that is because it’s one of the key attributes of a caring mindset.

Kruse: Right. It will be a lot worse later. 

Chowdhury: We have a choice to make. What kind of life do we want to lead? Normally, a ‘Straightforward’ is not rewarded, but guess what? Everything I did in my whole career is being straightforward to the client, and sometimes, they get so upset. They throw me out of the room, but two months later, they realize and come back to say, “You know what? That consultant told me the truth, and he’s right. Let us bring him in.”

The next element is about the ‘Thoughtful.’ I think, especially in the social media era, we are becoming so much of the gadget-centric. We sometimes forget about looking at the eyes of our colleagues and being thoughtful of them. Remember the story I talked about? The glass of water. I was sitting on the business class in the front row in one of my consulting engagements in an airline.

The flight attendant was serving the drink to all of us on the business class cabin. An older gentleman came in. He’s sitting on the first row, and he asked for a glass of water. The flight attendant looked at him and said, “Sir, unfortunately, in the economy class cabin, we don’t serve any drink before the flight takes off, so you have to wait until then.” That older gentleman again told her, “Hey, look. I’m very thirsty. Give me a glass of water.” She didn’t even give him an eye contact. Nothing. Then, one of the young men sitting on the business class immediately walked in, poured a glass of water, gave it to that older man. The point is I posted an article about the power of glass of water on LinkedIn. So far, more than a quarter million people around the world read that article.

People are hungry for thoughtfulness. The reason I mentioned about the thoughtfulness is in my mind, thoughtfulness is basically a two-step process. The first step is listening. We don’t do a good job as an individual in listening. We try to hear, but we don’t listen. Listening is much more than hearing, so we have to do a much better job on listening to the other person. Once you truly listen to someone, then your empathy comes in, which is the second step. Empathy kicks in, and then you will do something about that empathy.

I strongly feel that each of us as individuals can offer to our colleagues a glass of water when they need it. For example, after reading the book, The Difference, one of my clients invited me and wanted to talk with me about it. He said, “Hey, Subir. This book, I loved it so much, and blah, blah, blah.” I said, “Okay. Did you get any message that which you are going to practice? That is more important for me.”

I asked him again, “Do you think that you are thoughtful to others?” He said, “Of course.” I said, “Did you recently have a vacation?” He said, “Yes. In fact, two weeks ago, I had a vacation.” I said, “Okay. Where did you go? What did you do?” He talked with me nonstop for 15 minutes about his vacation and gave me so much positive energy.

I listened, looked at him and said, “Sir, I asked you a simple question about vacation, and you asked me for a one-hour meeting. Out of the one hour, you already spent 25 percent of your time describing your vacation.” I said, “That is fantastic. You gave me a lot of positivity. Did you even spend even a couple of minutes giving this positive energy about your vacation to your direct reports?” He looked at me and he said, “Subir, you know our organizational culture. We don’t talk about personal stuff and my vacation stuff to my direct reports. That is not our culture.”

I said, “Okay. You’re talking to me for 15 minutes about your vacation and giving me positive energy, and you are reluctant to give the positive energy to your direct report, so what is it? Is it your ego, or do you think that way because I’m a big management consultant and author?” He got the message. He was so shaken up. I think it’s very important for us to go back to show our empathy, and it is not about just telling them. It’s talking to your direct reports and asking them, “How are you? How are your wife and children doing?”

That is a caring mindset.

Kruse: And the final two parts of the STAR framework?

Chowdhury: ‘Accountable’ is much more like taking your personal responsibility. Usually, what I find is that if something goes wrong, we try to blame somebody else. Basically, what I’m saying is that if you work for an organization, try to help other people. Try to help your colleagues and take the personal responsibility.

I talk about one of my heroes, believe it or not, she’s a 13-year-old girl from Illinois. Her name is Trisha Prabhu. She found out that an 11-year-old Florida girl was bullied by her classmates and committed suicide. What Trisha did is she came up with an app called ReThink. What it does is that before anybody types anything about cyber bullying, ReThink will tell you, “Are you sure you want to give this message?” Ninety-three percent of the adolescents who used the app decided not to post the hurtful message after they had the opportunity to rethink. Think about that, and that’s what personal accountability and personal responsibility is all about.

Mother Teresa gave a phenomenal quote, “Do not wait for leaders. Do it alone.” That means, if you see a problem in your organization, stand up. Try to go there and talk about it even if you see somebody is hiding the information. That’s what accountability is all about.

The last point is ‘Resolve.’ When somebody has it, someone can commit to making a change happen regardless of how difficult the challenge is. ‘Resolve’ means having the passion, determination, or perseverance to find the solution to a problem or improve the situation. Think about this with the last time when you faced a dilemma. Did you do everything possible to resolve the issue? Is there anything else you might have been done, or is there anything more you can still do? Think about it.

When I came to America in 1991, as soon as I landed, my graduate advisor told me, “If you come two weeks early, we may give you a scholarship,” So I came three weeks early. As soon as I came in, I immediately went to his office to make sure whether I got the scholarship or not. He looked at me and he said, “Hey, guess what? I know you came three weeks early. I told you to come two weeks early. You came three weeks early. That’s good, but unfortunately, it’s given to somebody else.” I said, “Sir, you cannot do that.”

I didn’t have any money to even register. I had to go to the bank for a $200 loan to get my engineering degree started. But I didn’t give up. I was the first person in my whole family who came to America. I didn’t know anybody in US at that time. What I did was I still immediately had it resolved, and said, “No, this is not the American dream I came over here for. That means there’s something wrong, but I’m not going to accept what’s wrong.”

That was my first day in America. That’s what I did, Kevin. I went to every single department and thought about what I can do for them if they can give me a scholarship. After a week of visiting 23 departments, to make the long story short, I got selected for the scholarship in the Mechanics Department, which was the 23rd department that I visited. The point I’m making is that nobody does that. Nobody goes to 23 departments.

Rejection after rejection, after rejection, trying to convince that I needed that money so badly. I needed the scholarship so badly. Even with what’s going on in America, am I still optimistic about America? Absolutely. I really am because it is the mindset. If each of us have that kind of mindset, we can make it different for our nation. We can make it different for our own lives. We can make it different for our organization. We can make a difference to our community. We can make a difference to our next-door neighbor.

Kruse: I like to challenge our listeners to get 1% better every single day. Is there something specific that you can challenge them to try today?

Chowdhury: Every single day, as soon as we wake up, we go in front of the mirror and we brush our teeth, right? When you’re brushing your teeth, take a pause. Look at yourself in the mirror. Ask yourself one question, “What can I do better on that day for others that I can be proud of?” It doesn’t matter what it is. It can be a bigger smile or a hug, or it can be putting your hand on the shoulder of your next colleague who might be suffering a bad disease. Whatever the case may be, try to challenge yourself every single day. Then over time, you will develop a caring mindset.

Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at