As an entrepreneur, you are put to service to serve others and make a difference in their lives. What is your primary objective for establishing a business? Are you solely doing it to generate revenue? Dr. Patty Ann Tublin sits with Howard Behar (@howardbehar), a renowned business leader, author, speaker, and mentor, for a conversation about servant leadership principles that inspire people to lead with values. Howard explains how it is a life principle that helps future leaders grow as human beings who empathize with their people. Tune in to learn valuable insights on why maximizing profits should not be your ultimate goal!
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The Importance Of Shaping Your Values In Servant Leadership With Howard Behar
I have such a treat for all you Java lovers and even non-Java lovers out there. Rather than me share any information about this incredible man, leader, and father, I want to introduce Howard Behar to you, the Former President of Starbucks, who revolutionized the way we drink and order our coffee. Welcome, Howard. Thank you so much for being a guest.
Thanks for having me.
Howard, I always try to find obscure things about people, although you are pretty much out there. I don’t think you have any secrets but it sounds like your credit working in your parent’s grocery store in Seattle with how you learned to be a leader and run a consumer-oriented business. Tell me a little bit about that early influence because I suspect you grew up in the store as most people did. Let’s hear about that.
The store was my babysitter after school. I would come from school and go to the store. My dad and mom were working there, so I was there every day. You learn a lot by watching your parents and what they do. They don’t have to say anything. One of the most significant experiences I had that I didn’t recognize until much later in life was one day, when I was about 8 or 9 years old, my dad was ringing a customer up on a cash register. This was an old hand grand cash register with 10 buttons across and 10 buttons down. He had charged accounts for everybody because they were not just our customers. They are our neighbors and friends.
He had rung the customer up, and then he looked at me and said, “Howard, would you get me some bananas or strawberries.” I went back and got on, brought them up, he put them in the bag, and a customer walked out the door. I was old enough to recognize my dad had to ring those up on the cash register because you are always waiting for the bang. I said, “Dad, you forgot to ring those up.” He looked at me and said, “Howard, not everything we do in life do we need to get paid for. I happen to know these people love fresh fruit, and they can’t afford it now. They are not just our customers. They are our neighbors and friends. It’s my way of helping them out.”
I never forgot those words, “Not everything we do in life do we need to get paid for.” That influenced me my whole life and my whole business career. Sometimes you do things because you want to, out of the kindness of your heart or somebody else’s need, and you don’t worry whether they get paid for it or not. I don’t mean monetarily getting paid for it but emotionally getting paid for it. You do it because it’s the right thing to do. It makes you feel better. That lesson took me on, and I carry that forward to Starbucks. As a matter of fact, that’s how I got to Starbucks. I was interviewing with Howard Schultz, who was the CEO then and had come back.
By the way, Howard Schultz grew up in Canarsie in New York, not far from where I grew up. That’s Brooklyn or Queens but I know his humble background from him.
Anyway, I said to Howard, “Before you make an offer and decide to join the company, I like to work in a company for a week. I will do it for free. Here’s what I would like to do. I want to work in the stores for a few days. I would like to work in the plant for a few days. I like to work in the truck for a few days.” I did that for a week. After that first week, I had a pretty good feeling about what the company was like. Unfortunately, Howard extended an offer for me to join the company, and the rest was history.
It sounds like you will be looking to see what the culture was.
I didn’t know what the culture was like. I wanted to know what the people were like, what the business was like, and whether or not what he said was true.
You were the undercover boss before you were the undercover boss.
It wasn’t even an undercover. I was looking to be a boss but I was working side-by-side with everybody that was there. It’s true. That’s kind of like it.
You learn a lot by watching your parents. They don’t have to say anything. You learn a lot by just watching what they do.
I saw that you went to a community college. Everything about your servant leadership has so many aspects of who you are as a person that identify and define you as a leader and president of a company that was groundbreaking. Starbucks is so unique. It’s a publicly traded company, so you still have the quarterly publicly traded. The way things are now is that if you don’t meet your numbers, you are out, and people absolutely talk the game you talk.
They talk about putting the employee first, and then they will take care of the customers but they don’t, in fact, live that way, and you did. How were you able to stay true to that? Honestly, I know people. I have friends whose kids have worked in Starbucks working their way through high school and college, and they loved it. It wasn’t the same as working for Dunkin’ Donuts. It was very different. How did you do that?
There’s no inherent conflict between producing results, making money, and treating people well. That’s fiction. You can treat people well and still make a profit and money. I stop operating under the philosophy. The goal isn’t to maximize profit. The goal is to optimize. That means that there are lots of different constituencies that you serve, so you have to serve all of them. Optimization means that you are taking care of everybody.
Is it equal? No, not always, but how you treat people has nothing to do with money. Kindness, love, and caring have nothing to do with whether you are rich or poor. Great leaders and organizations understand that even when somebody doesn’t live up to your expectations, you still treat them with respect and dignity. I used to say, “Love them as much as going out the door as you love them coming in the door.”
That’s a way of living. Servant leadership is not a business principle. It’s a life principle. It’s the understanding that all of us are put on this Earth to serve others. There is no rule that any of us will play in our lives. It doesn’t make any difference. Doctor, lawyer, engineer, architect, fire chief, barista, nurse, or podcaster doesn’t make any difference. Whatever you do, you are here to serve other human beings. As long as you remember that and you are there to put other people first, you will get what you need out of life. It follows.
You say it, Howard, and it makes such perfect sense. However, you know that’s the exception to the rule. You hire people and ask them how you can meet their needs, help them, and help them optimize. It’s clichéd but be the best that they can be, and then they will bring their best selves. It sounds so simple. It’s common sense, and yet it’s so not practiced. How did we lose our way?
I don’t know that we ever lost our way. I think we have been through cycles. If you look at the early 1900s, the Chevrons and the companies that were operating then were pretty greedy companies and leaders. When he went through a cycle after the Second World War, unionization came in. General Motors treated its people well and paid them pretty well. Ford actually did. We’ve gone through these cycles, and then we went through the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s of greed. I forget who the economists said, “Sole purpose of a company is to make money.” It’s not true.
Now we are back in this mode that we understand that’s not the sole purpose of the company. We are here to provide jobs and help people grow as human beings. In so doing, they help the organization. There are a lot of companies that practice servant leadership. They may not call it that but they practice it. I can think of companies in my own backyard like Nordstrom, Costco, etc. There are some that haven’t been that way.
Interestingly, you mentioned those two, Nordstrom and Costco. Both of which I’m a fan of. They are known for incredible customer service. If you go into Nordstrom, you feel like you are the only person in the store. Costco’s whole philosophy was they charge you only 15% above. There’s no greed at all, and you do feel that.
We’ve had companies in the technology business, and Microsoft is a great example. It was a harsh environment in the early days. It stayed that way for a long time until, basically, leadership changed. The guy that was there comes in and changes the whole philosophy. He says, “The single most important skill that any leader needs to have is empathy.”
There was a company whose stock had been languishing for ten years, and this guy came in. Basically, what he does is makes it a people-centric company. All of a sudden, the search to produce again. I have been doing this for a long time. I’ve seen the good, the bad, the ugly. I’ve reported to assholes, and I’ve worked for great people. There’s a huge difference. You don’t do this because you want to get rich.
The goal of servant leadership isn’t to make money. The goal of servant leadership is to do good things, and in so doing, you will make money. There’s a company like Uber that was terribly led by the founder. We worked in other companies like that, Tyco or whatever. We know them all, and we know the good ones too. The Container Store is one of my favorites. It’s how you do things, and you have to make up your mind that it’s the most important thing.
What works in a family? What makes a great family and a great marriage? Great communication and building trust. My responsibility to my wife has to help her achieve what she wants in her life. It’s to help her live a fulfilling life. That’s my primary responsibility and to love her, but of course, to love my family. I’m there to serve her. She and I say, “Essence is there to serve me, and together as a team, we practice servant leadership in our family.”
When has that been tested for you? When was it difficult? There’s so much noise, and it’s not always easy to do the right thing. What’s an example of when you had to dig deep and came through but it wasn’t easy?
When I first got to Starbucks, and they were paying minimum wage. I wanted to raise the wages. I figured it out. I plan to do it, and we are going to raise at least $1 to $2 above the minimum.
What’s the timeframe for the audience? I want them to know.
I joined Starbucks in ’89, so this was about 1990.
It was after the crash.
Yes. I developed a plan of how to do it. We had to raise prices a little bit and do a couple of other things. We took our wages up but a month or two months after, we got our first P&Ls back. I thought it was going to cost us 1% each point in our P&L. Instead, it cost us 2%, and then I got a call from Howard Schultz. He said, “What’s going on? I was on vacation. I came back from vacation. I started digging the numbers, and we’d made an error in our mathematics.” I didn’t go back. I said, “I will fix it.”
We kept our wages where I wanted them to be. We had to make some other changes but we made them and stayed with what we committed to. That’s what I always believed. Do what you say you are going to do. The goal was to raise the wages, and we had to figure out how to make that happen. It was painful at the beginning but we figured it out. You do what you say you are going to do, and you live up to it.
I remember I was working for another company for a big department store chain. I had told my team that if we reached a certain goal, I would take everybody and their spouses out to a fancy dinner, so I did that. I came back and my boss said, “You can’t do that. You got to pay for that yourself. You can’t put it on your expense account.” I said, “I will,” and I did because I had made a commitment. You live up to your commitments, even if it costs you.
If the ramifications for you had not done that, they would have lost trust in you.
I lost respect for myself, most importantly.
Tell us a little bit about when you first went there. The culture worked for you but then what did you have to change? What was your relationship like with Howard Schultz? How did he find you?
You can treat people well and still make a good profit. How you treat people really has nothing to do with money.
He found me through a guy named Jeff Brotman I had grown up with. He was one of the cofounders of Costco. He’s from the Seattle area and kept telling me, “I need to meet this young guy.” I had come out of a career in land development. The company got in trouble, and we had to sell it. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. I was in my early 40s. I met Howard, and we had a long conversation. He decided that he wanted somebody with a college degree in food service experience, which I didn’t have.
I started to say that earlier about the community college.
We parted ways. About a year later, I ended up getting back in touch with Howard again through another person. The way we went through that, we had the dance where I worked in the company for a week, and then I ended up joining the company. That’s how I got there.
Did you reach out to him the second time?
No. A friend of his reached out to me the second time and said, “We need a guy like you here.” That’s how it came. That’s how I got there.
Howard, when they said a guy like you, would they referring to who you were? It doesn’t matter the industry, then it doesn’t matter what degree.
I’m a high-energy guy. I was a people-centric person. I didn’t understand servant leadership a lot until I was in my mid-twenties. I didn’t know what it meant. I was doing it but I was unconscious competent.
What was it about the two of you when you first met and the challenges when you went in there? If they need someone like you, clearly something was lacking. Also, aside, the reason why you didn’t know what servant leadership is is that you would be in who you are based on how you were raised.
All entrepreneurial organizations are led by entrepreneurs that think their product or service is the most important thing. The minute you hire one person, people are the most important thing. When I got to Starbucks, coffee was the most important thing. All they talked about was coffee, which is great. I’m a lover of coffee. I have been a customer for a long time of Starbucks before then. I kept saying it’s not about the coffee. It’s about the people. It was a hard time convincing Howard of that. It wasn’t that he was not a people guy but he could be harsh and hard on people. It’s a lot different than soft and gentle Seattle.
I kept asking him, “Howard, what business are we in?” He said, “We are in the coffee business.” He’d get mad at me. “What do you mean what business we are in?” I said, “We are not in the coffee business. We are in the people business.” I coined this little phrase because I was trying to convince everybody. I said, “We are not in a coffee business serving people. We are in the people business serving coffee.”
Believe it or not, it has been well over 30 years, and that phrase is still alive at Starbucks. I have been retired for a couple of years but wanted to change what people focused on, and that’s what I brought. I was relentless about it that we treated people well and honored them. I brought servant leadership into the company and drove that. Howard and I would argue a lot about that.
He’s always trying to impress his investors. I didn’t care about that stuff. I was a results guy. I believe in performance but I care about the people. I said, “If I treat the people well, pay them well, respect them, and help them grow as human beings.” I have this equation I like to use, “You grow the people, the people grow the organization, the organization grows the business.” That’s how I operated. I focused on growing the people, and the people did grow the business.
This segues right into core values. It’s interesting. I’m consulting with the company now, and they have been trying to figure out their core values for five years. You could tell that they didn’t have the core values figured out the way leadership was acting out. We finally had the core values. I said, “This is what you hire and fire on. It’s easy. It’s a no-brainer. It’s how you live.” Talk a little bit about that because you don’t hear leaders talking about that.
Let me share something with you. This is a piece of paper. On this piece of paper, I call it a picture of Howard in 50 words or less. You are not going to be able to read it but it has my personal mission statement. It has my core values and what I call my six Ps how I do everything. My mission statement is, “Every day, I want to nurture and inspire the human spirit, begin with myself first and then with others.” That’s how I live my life. That’s what I do every day. Sometimes, it’s picking up a piece of paper off the street. That nurtures and inspires the human spirit. I have my core values, honesty, fairness, respect for yourself and others, responsibility, integrity, trust in self and others, caring, and love.
I live my life against those core values. I have what I call my six Ps. This is my internal reminder of how I do everything in my life. The first P is everything I do in my life has to have a Purpose greater than myself. It has to be bigger than me by serving others. The second P is if I have a purpose greater than myself, then I darn well better be Passionate about it. All my energy has to go in there. I scream it from the highest mountain tops. It drives me. I get up in the morning, looking forward to what I’m doing that day. The third P is Persistence. Nothing happens in life without persistence. All of us are on these rivers we call our lives, and on those rivers are rocks.
Some of those rocks are below the water. We don’t see them. We crash into them. We got to figure out how to deal with them. Get around, over, under or through them. Some rocks we can see. Even people have told us, “Watch out for that rock around that bed.” We hit them anyway. Why is that? It’s all we do. There are rocks that are the most difficult ones, the ones we put there ourselves. Those are the ones sometimes with the hardest to get through. Persistence pays us in life. You’ve got to stay with it no matter how many rocks you hit. The fourth P is Patients. You would say, “Patience is opposite of persistence.” No, it’s not. You have to be patiently persistent. The most important person you’ve got to be patient with is yourself but you also got to be patient with others.
Not everybody comes along at the same time frame that you will. You must have patience with people and patience, most importantly, with yourself. You are not going to get everything in the timeframe that you want. The fifth P is Performance. Performance matters in this world. If you have a child that plays soccer and you commit to go to that soccer game, you got to go to that soccer game.
You got to let him know why you are not going to be there. If you commit to a monogamous relationship and your marriage, then that’s performance. You do it or don’t be married. It works if you commit to turning results and got to turn in the results, not on the backs of people but with people, so performance matters. The most important P is People. Everything we do, as I said before, is about serving people. I try to live my life against those six Ps and my mission statement. That’s how we ran our company and Starbucks.
I have another P for you. Tell me how this would play in unless you think you have it all covered there, which you probably do, Perspective.
Perspective is a good one. You got to have a perspective in life. You’ve got to be able to see over the horizon.
You are on leadership, so how do you honor other people’s perspectives that you disagree with?
That’s the nature of life. We are always going to disagree about something. Howard and I would disagree about a lot of things but sometimes, we argue like hell. Sometimes we will have a screaming match. Sometimes we sit down and have a conversation with the people that reported to me. Everybody talks about having an open door policy or management by walking around but you got to do it. An open door policy doesn’t mean your door is open.
It means that your ears are open, and you listen to other people because you never know what you are going to learn. What people agree on is what our values are in an organization. Agree on what we are trying to achieve together and what our greater purpose is. We are going to have different perspectives on the journey to get there. You got to listen and be open about it. That requires lots of conversation. It’s because you are the boss doesn’t mean you are right or you win.
Winning implies it’s a competition. It should be a collaboration.
Servant leadership is not a business principle. It’s a life principle. We’re here to provide jobs and to help people grow as human beings.
It’s collaboration. You don’t always get your way. It’s the way life is. “How many times did I listen to other people that were right and I was wrong? How many times did I not listen to other people where I was wrong, and they were right?” After a while, you learn to open up. I haven’t ever thought of myself as the creator or the answer to that. I was the alchemist. I would talk to people and get input.
When I went into a store, there were three questions I asked everybody, the baristas, the store managers, etc. I said, “What do you like about Starbucks? What don’t you like about Starbucks? What would you change about Starbucks?” After you talk to enough people, they give you the answers you need. You don’t have to have them. Bosses think they need to have the answers. You don’t need to have the answers. Your people will have them for you. Listen and ask.
As you know, the higher up you get in a company, I joke and say, “The air gets thin up there.” Sometimes, you wonder what they are thinking. They didn’t have enough air because we were so removed from the reality of the business and customers. How did you avoid that other than going into the company, the stores, and speaking to the people?
I have been in retail my whole life. When you are in retail, you cannot get away from it. That’s your way of living. I used to say my day job or the people, and my night job is the business. I’ve had this piece of paper for almost 50 years.
It’s in good shape.
I’ve changed it from time to time but I lived my life like this. I get off track and must be open enough to listen to people. I would want people to review me. “How am I doing for you?” It was a question I would ask. Sometimes people would hurt my feelings but people would say, “I admit it. I had to learn to live with it and accept it.”
You had a relationship with people where they would speak the truth to that.
I wanted it.
I didn’t know him personally but I know several people that were mentored by John Wooden. Apparently, he used to walk around with the legal size yellow pad and ask questions, and people would ask him questions. Did you ever have a conversation with him? You reminded me of him.
I did have a conversation with John Wooden.
Tell us about that.
It was a long time ago. I was at UCLA. I was giving a speech at UCLA, and he was listening to my speech but I happened to go out a speech and I wasn’t. I introduced myself, and he asked me what I was doing there. I told him I was talking about servant leadership. He happened to be an acquaintance of Robert Greenleaf, who is the concept guy behind the word servant leadership. He said about what a great guy he was. I didn’t get a chance to talk to him about his leadership stuff but I read his books, and that’s what he was. He help people be accountable. Remember when he said to Wong? “That’s a wonderful beard. I’m sure you want to keep it. If you do, maybe you want to play for a different team.”
“Good luck to you.” There was a story. I don’t know if it was him or something about, “If you don’t shave it, then I will have to let you go or something.” He was questioned later on, “What were you going to do?” He said, “I don’t know what I was going to do but he thought I was going to do something.” It was brilliant, and you are reminding me so much of him. I’m wondering, I rarely go here but it sounds like there’s very much a religious orientation for you that plays into who you are as a servant leader.
I’m Jewish. I wouldn’t call myself religious but there are values that we live by. All religions have some core values. Judaism was about giving and sharing at its core. It’s probably true. There are a lot of people when I talk about servant leadership who want to equate it to, particularly some sects of Christianity. Jesus was a servant leader. Maybe. I don’t know. I didn’t know him. I assumed by the words that he said that he was.
There’s maybe part of that in there but I had a great rabbi growing up who was my bar mitzvah rabbi. I remember going in and talking to him, you go in, and you have a conversation with your rabbi before your bar mitzvah person God did. We were talking and I said, “I don’t know if I believe in God.” He said, “Don’t worry about it. God is within all of us. It’s not whether you believe in some.” He gave permission for me to be me and didn’t judge me.
I hear what you are saying so much about monotheism. The Tama did say something about, “Love one another. Everything else is commentary.” I have four children. One of my sons is Don. His honeymoon is now in Thailand. It’s all the Buddhist temples, and you see that story on Instagram. That reminds me of when I went to Rome everything was church. When I went to Israel, I don’t remember everything being a synagogue because it was all the religions but so much of Buddhism is from within. In terms of holistic, if we look at being kind to each other, it’s not complicated, and the world would become such a better place.
It’s not complicated but we struggle with it. Now, we are struggling with it.
What do you think is going on for us now? You and I, we remember that we weren’t born with a cellphone glued to our hips. Now, we can’t live with that. I can’t live without it. Doing Zoom is incredible.
It’s a great tool but that’s all it is. It’s a tool that we have now to connect us. I think social media has had a detrimental effect. No question. People are allowed to say things they would never say face-to-face. There’s no accountability. There’s so much judgment in the world. I have lots of thoughts about it. I think that we use religion for sitting in judgment of others.
If you truly believe in God, then you treat everybody with respect and dignity, whether they are lesbian or gay. Whatever they are, it doesn’t make any difference because it has no effect on us. People are living their lives. This stuff about worrying that this whole deal about woke. All woke means is that you are aware. Substitute the word awareness for woke. That’s what it is. You are aware of other people, their feelings, and how they are thinking.
You don’t judge them based on that. You accept them for where they are. You don’t need to be and live that way but we are so full of criticism and judgment that this is a shame. How are politicians? Many of our politicians treat people. It’s atrocious, and I’m worried. It’s the first time in my life that I’m worried about the United States. I was in the military. I was in the Air Force but it was a long time ago.
It makes you a different person. There’s a big difference between people that have served and haven’t served in the military.
We are struggling, and I don’t know how we are going to get out of it. I don’t want to be political but Trump let the cat out of the bag. It wasn’t that all the stuff wasn’t there laying underneath, antisemitism, racism, and homophobia. All that stuff sits there. He allowed it to be okay to attack people because of it. The things that he did, said, and does, and the whole thing about the election, I’m amazed at how many people actually believe that the election was stolen. It’s one thing to have an opinion. You can have any opinion you want. Just give me the facts.
I don’t usually go into politics but here we are, so let’s go with it. How do you feel about corporations? If they seem to be taking on a much more political position than I remember in the past.
Performance matters in this world.
I say Starbucks, for example. Many years ago, we gave everybody in the company partner benefits. You didn’t have to be married to get healthcare benefits. All company is doing that because it is part of our values. We treated everybody with respect and dignity. Ours wasn’t there to judge. These people were living together. That’s what we said. You have to be committed to each other. We didn’t put them through a test. We said, “Tell us. Are you living together? Is this your partner?” Fifty percent of people get divorced.
Maybe 50% of these people won’t be living together but we gave everybody all partner’s healthcare benefits. Even the unions in Seattle weren’t advocating for it, and we gave it to everybody. Now, there are some people that probably didn’t like it. Gently coming out and supporting their people and the gay people in their company, and then have a governor attack them because they supported the people. It’s atrocious. I don’t want to hear that he’s Christian because no Christian would act like that.
I don’t hear that. I don’t even listen to that stuff.
That stuff is garbage. Companies are trying to do the right thing by their people. They serve the whole. They don’t just serve one segment of the population. Do you not want to make a cake for somebody because they are gay? Really? That’s your whole thing? There’s something wrong. You are not practicing what you have been preaching.
Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment and truly for the conversation in terms of separation of church and state. This is not me but what about if 50% believe Black and 50% believe White, and a company says, “This is our favorite color for a crayon?” What about the 50% that it’s not their favorite color? Are they including everyone?
I asked you what your values are. Religions have values.
Are they all the same?
Pretty much they are. Everybody says, “We love people. We give to people.” That’s part of what you do without any judgment. It’s not complicated. You don’t have to be that person. You don’t have to say it’s okay. You can say, “I don’t believe in gay marriage.” If it’s nothing you can say, that’s fine. You can believe that all you want. If that’s what you want to believe, that’s fine. Just don’t put it on me. That’s all we are asking. Don’t judge others.
Let me bring it full circle back to servant leadership. You use the word empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and feel what somebody else is feeling. Even if you don’t agree with them, just be there and hold them.
I’m talking here about murder. I’m talking about how people behave for themselves. If someone breaks the law, they break the law but we shouldn’t create laws about how human beings act with themselves.
This is the whole concept of what I deal with a lot, trust in all relationships. There’s more than one truth. If I have to be 100% right, that means you are 100% wrong but most of life is gray. My truth is my truth. It doesn’t have to be your truth.
People probably that are reading will say, “He’s a Liberal.” I am not. I used to think I was progressive but in Seattle, I am totally Conservative compared to the level of population. Everything is relative. I still believe all the same things I believe. Now, based on a lot of the people in Seattle, I sit off to the Conservative side. I’m conservative about a lot of things. The things that have to do with loving people for who they are, not who you want them to be.
It’s such a simple thing. It’s amazing to me that people have a hard time with that. You are who you are. I think you made the big differentiator. As long as you are not hurting others, it’s your life to live. I guess when you were leading Starbucks, people didn’t have these conversations. What would you do if you did have somebody that was so judgmental and critical of others? Let’s take it as a leader. How did you lead that? What did you do with that?
It depends on how they acted on it. Starbucks had room for everybody but you had to live by our core values. We treat everybody with respect and dignity, etc. I don’t remember the whole list anymore but it had to live by those values. If you couldn’t do that, then you didn’t have a place at Starbucks. You can have all these thoughts to yourself all you want but you still have to treat people with love, caring, and dignity.
Even if you were anti-gay marriage, that’s fine but that’s not your job at Starbucks. You had to talk to everybody. Some people couldn’t do that, and they didn’t stay. They would opt out, and that’s usually what happens. At the end of the day, if you want to have peace in the world and truly honor God, then you have to love people no matter where they come from.
I don’t know how anyone could argue with that. Let me pivot for a moment because culture comes into play with all of this as well. You went to Japan. That’s such a different culture. They don’t have the word no in Japanese. Is that correct? Do you speak Japanese?
They don’t say no like that.
Tell us about that.
I was in Japan every month for 3 or 4 days because we were opening stores. It is our first big market outside the US. I was in Japan a lot.
Traditionally, are Japanese tea drinkers?
They drank a lot of tea but actually drank a lot of coffee. They were the third largest coffee-consuming country in the world when we opened there. That’s why we chose them. We thought it would work. Does Japan have a different cultural norm? Yes, they do. One of the things was they hardly any women in senior management in the company.
You’ve read my mind. I was going to ask you about the woman.
We said we are going to have women in senior management. We had a partner in Japan. It wasn’t just us. We had a joint venture partner in Japan, a Japanese company. They didn’t have a lot of women in senior management. We kept saying, “This is who we are. No matter where we go, we are going to have women in management.” It took a while for us to get it. We ended up having a president of Starbucks in Japan that was a female who did a wonderful job. Deidra Wager is her name.
Do you know what I found? I was the one that pushed to go outside of North America. I developed a business plan. After that experience, it was about eight years that I ran the international business. I came back from that experience saying, “We are all the same. We eat different foods. We may practice different religions. We might have different skin colors but we all want to love and be loved.
Just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you’re always right. You don’t always get your way. That’s the way life is.
We want to be treated with respect and dignity. We all want to grow as human beings. We all want more for ourselves and our families.” Once you wipe away the stuff, it doesn’t matter. All that’s left is caring for other people. Countries are different like China or Saudi Arabia. You don’t think that people in Saudi Arabia want to be loved.
Interestingly, you brought that up. Right before women got the right to drive, I went to Saudi Arabia. As far as I know, I’m one of the only American women that gave a keynote address in front of a mixed-gender audience on business leadership. It was a fascinating experience. The women are incredibly brilliant. Israel is the most educated woman, at least because of the scholarship. I did so much speaking, and it opened up many doors for me in the states to consult and coach. What I found is that at the end of the day, we are so much more alike than we are different. Women, in particular, all want the same things. We want to be loved, our families to be loved, and be safe.
We all went into the bathroom with the women that have niqabs. The only thing you could see is the eyes, and as an American New Yorker, no less. We go to the bathroom, and they take it off. I’m like, “Shame on me. It was wonderful.” I ask them, “How do you do your eye makeup?” Their eye makeup is beautiful. We had so much fun. They said, “This is cultural. Americans, you get so caught up on us.” We take it. It’s so great. It was interesting because it was the first business trip I had taken where I didn’t have to worry about what I was wearing. It was wonderful.
That’s the way it was around the world. They are all different.
Let me ask you because this is true in the states as well. Maybe it’s a dirty little secret, and people don’t like to talk about it. For many women, even now, to be successful outside the home, there is still an element of, if they have a partner or a traditional marriage, their husband being supportive of that. Whereas you don’t think about men having a supportive wife for you to climb the corporate ladder in the same way as you do for that women do. Women will say, “I can’t because my husband will be upset.” It’s actually mind-blowing to me.
I hope that that’s changing. That’s not my life. I will tell you it’s changing.
It wasn’t back then. It must have been hard back then when you did it.
It’s hard, but we did it. You kept pushing it, and I kept talking about it, not sitting in judgment and saying, “We’ve got to do this. This is who we are. Look at our customers.” Over time, it changes. It’s not perfect. We are not going to be all the same or agree on everything but most things we do. In Kuwait, most of the retail clerks in Kuwait are Filipinos or from other Asian countries. Very few young people in Kuwait were to work in retail or the stores. When we first opened there, we had young men and women from Kuwait that wanted to work in the company and work behind the counter.
It was unheard of at that time. They pivot, so we honored it. I remember walking into the store one time when we first opened the store, and there were three women in full burqas with the Disney’s eyes. What were they drinking? Lattes through a straw up underneath that. Talking fast as they could. It was exactly the same thing that goes on in San Francisco, London or New York. The same thing, just no burqas. This whole thing about women is changing. We had more women that were prime earners of senior leadership positions.
I do want to ask you, how did you know that you wanted to expand outside of North America? Where was that vision?
I don’t know. It’s a great question. I try to think back. It was part of something I wanted to do. I wanted to do something different. I was reporting to Howard Schultz, and things were getting good at Starbucks. I was feeling like my air hose was getting stepped on a little bit, and I needed freedom.
I know what you mean when you say your air hose was getting stepped on but tell me what you meant. Is people aren’t letting you do what you want?
Things were starting to go good, and Howard wanted more influence in a lot of areas that I had responsibility for. I thought, “What else could I do inside the company?” I said, “I could take Starbucks outside of North America.” I’ve got the skills. I had never run an international business but I knew Starbucks, and I wasn’t afraid, so I developed a business plan to do it. I present it to the board, and it took two years to get approval but I did. That’s how it happened. That’s why it was more a desire on my part. It was a dream that I had to do it. I wanted my freedom and space again.
We know all about servant leadership but where does that fearlessness come from?
I am not fearless. I have fears. I have all the same fears other people have.
From the business perspective or the leadership.
I don’t know. I always never felt I needed a job. I always believed that you got to be fearless in your job. You got to be willing to give up your job every day. That means that you got to be able to take risks. Sometimes from speaking your mind. I was always a risk taker. I was not afraid of doing things that I thought were right. I grew up in that. When you grow up in small businesses, that’s what you see all around you. They are all immigrants. They were all in small businesses. That’s when I saw jewelry stores, bond brokers, music stores, grocery stores, bagel makers, and tailors. I watched them all make a living. That’s where it came from.
What do you think about clearly you are not money-driven, yet here you are? Are you like, “What do I need this for?”
When I had money, I spent it. When I didn’t have, I didn’t. When I was young, my first management job was a manager job. When he sent a check and said, “Howard, pay yourself first. Take 10% of your paycheck and put it away.”
Your dad didn’t say that, though.
My dad didn’t tell me that. It was my boss telling me that, and I did that. That started the journey but I was never driven by money. As long as I had enough to put food on the table, I always believed I could do that. I have been working since I was thirteen, so I’m not afraid of work. I like work and people. I pick up cigarette butts where nobody else will bend over. That was part of how I live my life. I have been with a couple of companies. In one of the companies, I invested all my savings and lost it all.
I didn’t know Starbucks was going to become what it became. I was on an escape from corporate life. I always wanted to do something that was fun. I always found if I filled my soul that, everything else had worked out, and it did. I’m lucky. I might have no illusion. I believe luck is where opportunity meets preparation. The opportunity came along, and I was prepared but I was lucky.
Who the hell would know that Starbucks would become a multibillion-dollar company operating in 97 countries? If I had known that, I would have kept all my stock but I didn’t know. I was doing what I wanted to do. After that week of working there for free, I said, “This is my place.” I was prepared and had good skills. I was willing to risk my job. Howard and I were getting some blowouts.
I didn’t know this about the two of you. I want to interview Howard Schultz. Tell him that another kid from Brooklyn wants to interview him.
We shouldn’t create laws about how human beings act with themselves.
Any other guy would’ve fired me.
What does that say about Howard Schultz?
He was a street fighter. I was one of the few people that he would put up with it. I think timing had a lot to do with it. I had lots of support inside the company because I was a people guy, and people knew it. The guy that pushed me to come into the company, I used to go to him and say, “I’m out of here. I can’t stand this anymore.” He said, “Howard, calm down.” There was a third leg to this stool, a guy named Orin Smith. It was the three of us together that built the company. Orin was a peacemaker. When Howard and I were going at each other, he would look at us and say, “Boys, calm down.” We meet every Monday night for dinner for a conversation about the company.
We found a way but you have to be fearless as best as you can about losing your job. I had other fears. I had my own insecurities that I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t have a college degree. It took me a long time to overcome that. I practice affirmations as skills to get over a lot of that stuff. A lot of things came together at the right time, and I got lucky. A lot of people work hard. They never get the opportunity that I got. They never earned what I earned. You got to be prepared to take a risk sometimes. I understood that I had to work in entrepreneurial organizations. I had no college degree. I had to take chances other people wouldn’t take, and I did that.
That’s the value of coming in from not knowing the industry or from a different industry because there’s no sense of, “That’s not how we do it. That won’t work around here.” You are like, “Why not?”
I will try it. I was always why not. If it’s not illegal, immoral or ethical, and you don’t poison somebody, try it.
Do you ever think selling your stock notwithstanding? Do you ever think of, “If I could have done something differently in my career, what would it have been?”
I would have taken the risk to do my own business.
Tell me more about that.
I would have stepped up earlier. Before I went to Starbucks, I was trying to buy a business. That’s how I got there because I was trying to buy a franchise business. A guy that had franchises was also helping Howard Schultz. I went to pitch this guy. My brother-in-law was going to loan me money. My brother-in-law knew this guy as well. His name was Jack Rogers. I went there to pitch my idea.
He said, “What do you want to do for something like that? We need a guy like you right here at Starbucks.” You could have hurt my brother-in-law’s sigh of relief all the way to California. He wouldn’t have to loan me any money. I was trying to buy companies. I looked at all sorts of companies to buy. I wanted to run my own business. I never took the chance and didn’t do it. I went to work for Starbucks, and I treated it like it was my own business. It was as much my business as it was Howard Schultz.
Maybe that’s why you were fighting so much with Howard because you did have that passion as if it was yours.
He cared. We both knew each other cared. We both loved each other. He’s a myth. He’s a great guy. He would do anything for you. If you were hurting or you had a problem, he would be there for you.
I think people would say that about you too, Howard.
It’s life. You live your life, and that’s what I would have done.
Let me ask you another question. Another little pivot here, if you don’t mind. How many children do you have?
I have 2 children and 6 grandchildren.
That’s the best blessing. How did you live your values to be a servant leader as a parent, working hard, and traveling so much? I know bounds gets a bad rap but it’s working professionals. We are trying to do it all. We have to because we do it. Why are you smiling? What did I say?
I am not a good example to answer that question. I worked hard, and a lot but I did some things. We would have family planning sessions where we talk about our goals and our family. We talked about our values, and I would take my kids on business trips with me, so they could see what I was doing. I would have them in the meetings.
At what ages?
They were young. They were probably 12 and 8. They were sponges. When I was gone, they knew where I was. I was gone a lot, particularly at Starbucks. I always traveled 70% of the time. My wife was getting her PhD at that time. We had to figure out how to work it out, and we worked it out but I did live with every commitment I ever made to everyone. I treated them respectfully. I was never judgmental of my kids, ever.
What was Lynn’s role in your success besides the obvious?
I started out trying to be a Jewish husband. I’m the guy. I support the family. I do everything. Lynn wasn’t Jewish. She converted before we got married. It was a second marriage. We have been married for 45 years in 2022. Lynn was independent, and I struggled with that. She wanted her own checkbook, bank accounts, and own stuff.
We had to work through that. I had to work through it and had to let go. If you asked me what role she played, she set me free because I had to honor what she wanted. In so doing, I realized that what I was honoring with her, she was honoring it with me. She never said, “Howard, I don’t want you to do that ever.”
She would ask questions but she always was supportive. She was always there but yet she had her own career. She’s an oncology social worker. She ended up getting her PhD. She didn’t have a college degree when we got married. I asked her, “What would you like to do with your life?” That was a question I asked her. She said, “I would like to go back to school.” I said, “Let’s figure it out.” Eleven years she spent in school. I said to her dad one day, “I wasn’t supposed to have to pay for all that. You were supposed to pay that. You are the dad.” She was always supportive of me, and I was always supportive of her. That made a difference.
Do your children all live nearby?
They both live in Seattle.
Do you get to see them a lot?
I see my grandkids and my children a lot. I got back from a trip to Hawaii with one of my grandchildren. When they turn thirteen, we take them on a trip anywhere in the United States they want to go. One chose Mexico. I said, “That’s not the United States but we will do it.”
Why anywhere in the United States? Why that caveat?
I didn’t want to end up in a deal where one wanted to go to Europe for two weeks. I wanted to make it within some semblance of I could keep the cost under control, the sanity, and that we could do it in five days. Two have been to New York. There’s a third one that wants to go to New York too. Two have been to Hawaii. One wants to go to Mexico, so we went to Mexico.
When you came to New York, where did you stay? What did you do?
We went to the place for five nights. We ate at great restaurants. We waded all the little neighborhood restaurants. We had a ball.
People tease me all the time when I opened up my mouth and they say, “Where are you from?” My answer is the center of the universe. Sometimes they say Chicago. I said, “Not only New York but Brooklyn. If you shake anybody’s family tree hard enough, somebody from Brooklyn will tell you.”
I have never been to Canarsie.
It’s very different now than when how we grew up there.
I hired a car and driver, and he said, “You want to go where?” When I went there, the 7/11 had shut down. You didn’t go into the 7/11. They showed up at the door and said, “What do you want?” They will get it. On the way to Canarsie, we shopped in Brooklyn, and we went to a kosher restaurant. This was straight kosher. I had never been to it but it was delicious, let me tell you.
I’m glad that you took them. If you come back again, you have to let me know. Did you get to Coney island? Where I grew up and Howard grew up, you took your life into your hands going to Coney island. Now it’s the place to go, yet the cyclone. It’s great. This was amazing. I feel like I’ve known you my whole life, quite honestly. Two more quick questions, if I may. What is the one main thing you’ve learned about life that you want the audience to know?
If you don’t know where you are going, any path will get you there. Write your goals down. Write a plan for your life. Have your mission statement and values written down and a paragraph about how you want to live your life. You can change it anytime you want. Write it in pencil but have a plan. Don’t float through life.
Be the author of your own life. The last question is, what’s the last book you re-read and why?
I love that, but why?
The Boys In The Boat was about young people that came from nothing that had a dream. They worked hard together. They had a coach that cared about them. A boat builder that was an expert in what he did, and they achieved a result that nobody ever thought they could. They won the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany.
That was a great story. Do you remember the author if the audience wants to check it out?
Daniel James Brown.
How can people learn more about you? Where would you like to send them?
I give everybody my email address and my cellphone number. My email address is [email protected]. My cellphone number is (206) 972-7776. I will answer anybody. It may take me a while. I’m a little slow now but I will get back to everybody.
Let’s give everybody personal info.
Nurture and inspire the human spirit if I can help another person. My job is to serve others if somebody wants to ask a question or they want to talk to somebody. I’m not a psychiatrist or a counselor but I think that it’s my responsibility as a human being to help other people. Sometimes, a lot of people call. Sometimes, a few people call.
We are all here for a purpose, and you absolutely live that life. Thank you so much, Howard. This was awesome. That concludes our episode of The Trust Doctor: Restoring Trust & Enriching Significant Relationships. Now there are no secrets. You have Howard’s email and his cell phone number. Since I know you love this show, make sure you like, comment, share, and subscribe. Until next time. Be well.
- Howard Behar
- The Container Store
- The Boys In The Boat
- [email protected]
About Howard Behar
Howard Behar is a renowned business leader, author, speaker, and mentor who has influenced the lives of numerous men and women at all stages of their careers and at all levels and roles. Shaped by his experiences working in his parents Seattle market, schooled in operations and management in consumer-oriented retail business, and part of the leadership triumvirate that built the Starbucks brand.
For 21 years Behar led Starbuck’s domestic business as President of North America, and he became the founding President of Starbucks International opening the very first store outside of North America in Japan. During his tenure, he participated in the growth of the company from only 28 stores to over 15,000 stores spanning five continents. He served on the Starbucks Board of Directors for twelve years before retiring.
Howard now serves on the boards of several for-profit and non-profit organizations, including Education Element, iD Tech, The School of Leadership Studies at Gonzaga University. He is on the advisory boards of Anthos Capital, University of Washington Foundation, and a Trustee for The Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation. Howard is committed to the development and education of our future leaders and has been a longtime advocate of the Servant Leadership Model. After the successful publication of his first book, It’s Not About the Coffee: Lessons on Leadership from a Life at Starbucks, Howard now travels the world speaking to leaders, corporations, and students. His motivational message inspires everyone to be servant leaders and to lead with their values first.
Behar lives in Seattle, Washington, with his wife Lynn, and enjoys spending time with his children and five grandchildren. Boating is his favorite hobby, exploring the waterways from Seattle to Alaska.
Throughout a lifetime of filling his cup, Howard has sustained a work ethic and level of integrity which has had a profound impact on his own life the hundreds and even thousands of people who have been touched by his example.
- Former president of Starbucks Coffee.
- Author “Its Not About The Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks” and “The Magic Cup”
- Speaker and mentor, the ultimate “servant leader”
- Known for saying “The Person Who Sweeps the Floor Should Choose the Broom” and “Only the Truth Sounds Like the Truth.”
- Now travels the world speaking to corporations, leaders and students teaching to lead with values first.
- Boating is his favorite hobby.