The Heart of Starbucks’ CEO

A leader I know and much admire is Howard Behar, the former president of Starbucks North America and Starbucks International. Howard tells about the time 14 years ago this month when he received a call in the middle of the night at his home in Seattle alerting him that three Starbucks employees at the Georgetown store in Washington, D.C. had been shot and killed, including an 18-year who had just recently begun at Starbucks, his first job.   Behar immediately called Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ CEO, who was in New York on vacation at the time.

What Schultz didn’t do, says a lot about his character.  He didn’t call Starbucks’ public relations people or lawyers.  Instead, Schultz chartered a plane and headed straight to Washington, D.C.  When he arrived, he spoke with the police then proceeded to the store to get the addresses of the three murdered Starbucks employees. He went to each of their homes, told their families he was sorry and shared in their tears.

Howard Schultz’s heart was broken.   He showed courage by expressing the grief he felt. Doing so contributed to helping the victims’ families, friends and colleagues. As awful as grieving the loss of a loved one or friend is, it’s far worse to grieve alone.

Howard Schultz’s empathy and compassion spoke loudly to Howard Behar, a leader who has a huge heart.  Behar left his former employer and joined Starbucks in part because the previous CEO he worked for advised him he “shouldn’t wear his heart on his sleeve.”   Schultz was the type of leader Behar wanted to work for, a leader he could respect and admire because of his courageous and compassionate heart,  a leader he wanted to give his best efforts to serve.

Howard Behar became part of the group of three leaders at the top of Starbucks who were referred to as “H20” (i.e. Howard Schultz, Howard Behar and Orin Smith).  Behar had an enormous impact on Starbucks North America as its president then went on to become the first president of Starbucks International where he led it to spectacular growth.  After Behar retired, he continued to serve on Starbucks’ board of directors.  Behar was loved and respected throughout Starbucks for his heart and passion as well as his work ethic, open-mindedness and judgment about the retail business.  He became a Starbucks employee for the rest of his career, in no small part because his boss, Howard Schultz, had a heart.

One of the great privileges of my work is that I get to meet, observe and know leaders at a wide variety of organizations including businesses, government organizations, churches, universities and hospitals.  I’ve met quite a few who exercise frequently to keep their hearts and bodies fit for the long hours and no small number of them are also motivated by the desire to impress others with their physical presence, energy and competitiveness.   Regular physical exercise is certainly of value.  What many leaders miss, however, is the need to develop their hearts in ways beyond exercise that are even more important:  ways that produce the character strengths of love, kindness, compassion, gentleness and empathy.  A leader whose character is missing these strengths may have power over others but will never lead from influence that moves people to give their best efforts and align their behavior with the leader’s goals.  This truth is expressed in sayings such as you have to “earn the right to be heard” and “people don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

Research has shown that 75 percent of employees in most American organizations today are not engaged at work.  They show up for the paycheck but don’t give their best efforts.  Part of this is because they don’t feel connected to their leaders. From where they sit, their leaders appear heartless and could care less about them.  That’s why developing the hearts of leaders is especially important to getting America back on the right track.

To develop heart, we must care about and serve others, including the people we lead: our colleagues at work; our spouses, children and parents; our friends; and the less fortunate in our midst who have nothing to give back to us.

As you serve, take the time to ask questions of others such as “where did you grow up?,” “how are you doing these days?,”  “what’s going on in your life?,” and “what do you enjoy in life?”  Slow down and listen closely.  Find out about the career aspirations of the people who report to you and help them learn and grow in ways that advance their careers. If you’re a leader, you can develop the heart of the people you lead by scheduling a teambuilding event where together you volunteer to serve at a local charitable organization and take time to connect with the people you meet.

Care about and serve the people in your life and in your community, and you will develop the strength of heart that helps you connect.

To learn more about leaders who have developed heart and who inspired the people they led, read the article we wrote for the Leader to Leader Journal entitled “To Boost Performance, Connect with the Core.”  It’s about Bono of the rock band U2 and Admiral Vern Clark, the second-longest serving chief of the United States Navy.    I also recommend Howard Behar’s book It’s Not About the Coffee and the book Carolyn Dewing-Hommes, Jason Pankau and I wrote on great leaders who connect entitled Fired Up or Burned Out.  In the coming months Jason Pankau and I will be speaking and teaching workshops on this topic at the the NASA Johnson Space Center, the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Scotiabank, Texas Christian University, the Young Presidents Organization, and on September 13, I’ll be speaking with Admiral Vern Clark in Washington, D.C. at breakfast and lunch events sponsored by the Wharton Club of D.C.

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8 thoughts on “The Heart of Starbucks’ CEO

  1. Nice post. The salient point seems to be to remain true to yourself. Behar had the conviction that his style wasn’t broken and that another company would be a better fit for him. Then he made a decision that was life-changing… for him and his employees!

    Discouraged at work? Find the best in yourself: http://bit.ly/mDde82

  2. Truly excellent post.I’m pleased that the phrase/idea ‘don’t wear your heart on your sleeve’ is now being challenged and surprisingly by men.Women have been directly or subtly reminded not to show much emotion when climbing the corporate ladder.They work against nature and their own feminity just to prove they are equally good leader in their own natural way.

    Just through reading this article, I believe there will be a big shift of mindset, especially back to being what ‘feels’ right, treating human as human no matter what their given title at the workplace is.

    Thank you so much Michael! Look forward to own your book!

  3. Thanks for your encouraging words. I’m chipping away at a new book about this topic. Just fyi, you might also like Parker Palmer’s new book on the importance of heart for democracies to flourish.

    Best wishes,
    Mike