Howard Behar is former president of Starbucks Coffee Company International and the author of It’s Not About The Coffee and The Magic Cup. During his tenure, he helped grow the company from 28 stores to over 15,000 stores spanning five continents. He retired in 2007.
He now dedicates a large part of his time to the development and education of future leaders and has been a longtime advocate of Servant Leadership.
In a recent interview with Bill Fox, co-founder of Container13 and editor of Forward-Thinking Workplaces™, Behar talks about the virtuous behaviors and mindset that guided him throughout his successful 21-year tenure manning the ship at Starbucks.
Six key (and often rare) principles for better leadership and a better life clearly stood out for me in this compelling interview.
1. Give your people room to make mistakes.
Behar was asked by Fox how more companies are able to create workplaces where employees’ voices matter and people thrive. He says, “The person who sweeps the floor chooses the broom.”
Behar is talking about giving a person in a specific role or function full authority, responsibility, and accountability to do their work. “You’ve got to give them room to make mistakes and to grow primarily as people first, and then as employees,” says Behar.
2. Remove fear with trust.
The freedom for employees to make mistakes can only occur with a strong foundation of trust in place. That’s where “people can begin to use their creativity because they lose that fear of being judged. They lose the fear of making mistakes,” says Behar.
In trustworthy settings, you’ll naturally find that people genuinely care about and encourage one another. But it starts with leaders setting the stage — giving their people responsibility and accountability to let them “choose their broom,” says Behar.
3. Serve one another.
“You know it’s not really employees and customers. That’s a word we all use to describe with [whom] we work and do business,” says Behar.
At the end of the day, what we’re really put on earth to do is serve another human being. Behar states, “It doesn’t make any difference what your job description is or what your title is; we’re all servers of human beings.”
4. Set expectations and get agreement.
When asked about what it takes to get an employee’s best performance, Behar believes that open and honest communication–lots of it–is critical for success. But it’s not just communicating. It’s setting clear expectations and getting agreement on those expectations that gets the employee’s full attention. It’s a feeling people get when they are trusted with responsibility and accountability.
Behar uses the example of family dynamics: “What allows your kids to give you their attention? It’s when they feel trusted and not judged,” says Behar. “When that happens, they open up to communication that gets closed down when they’re not. When you’re constantly after them, when you’re always setting rules and regulations then what happens? They close down” says Behar.
Behar says the same is true with workplace dynamics. Set clear expectations, gain agreement on those expectations, and “let them go for it.”
5. Treat people more like human beings, less like mere employees.
Behar was asked what people really lack and long for at work. He says, “Being treated with respect and dignity. Being dealt with as a human being and not an employee.”
In workplaces where people model and share common values like respect and dignity, there’s acceptance of one another: “People are allowed to be themselves at work, whatever that is — within the context of achieving the goals of the organization,” says Behar.
Leaders who respect and treat people with dignity also support their development as human beings. When Fox asked Behar what is the most important question a leader should be asking an employee, Behar replied, “What can I do to support you in the attainment of your own goals in the context of obtaining our family or our organization’s goals?”
6. Discover the truth of who you are.
Reflecting back on his professional journey, Behar shared a story of his own compelling self-discovery. At 26, he really didn’t know whom he was, what his values were, what he stood for, or what he wanted to accomplish in life.
Working at a furniture company at the time, his boss asked, “Howard, what do you love more — people or furniture?”
That hit him like a Mike Tyson punch to the gut. Being that he wanted to be the best in the home furnishings industry, for the first time Behar was confused about his true purpose in life.
He says, “Once I asked myself that question, it began a process of self-discovery. Trying to figure out, ‘Howard, who are you?’ ‘Do you love furniture?'”
He concluded that it wasn’t furniture that he loved, but people — working with people, being with people, and learning from people.
And most importantly, he says, “learning to manage me.”
As a servant-leader, the question of “who am I?” has been a lifelong journey of self-discovery for Behar. He says that he is still figuring out his mission and how he’s going to live his life.
“It’s constantly in my head. I’m always trying to deal with, ‘Who am I?'” says Behar.