Java and Sympathy – a former Starbucks president tells how to succeed in business without putting people last

Howard Behar | Posted on 04/01/08


I don’t know if there are any MBA programs that have courses entitled “How to Love 101” or “The Caring Workplace,” but there should be. It’s impossible to lead in business — or in life — unless you genuinely care about other people. That’s what matters. Period.

My experience working at every level of business — from being the guy who set up and cleaned furniture showrooms to being president of a multi-billion-dollar international company — is that it’s much more important to lead with your heart than with your head. Love and trust are the universal motivators. And there’s no trust without caring.

Starbucks was a big company in the summer of 1997, with more than thirty-five thousand partners. There were stores in the United States, Canada, Singapore, and Japan, and aggressive plans to open throughout Asia and around the world. Building the company, we had faced many, many difficulties. Some were strategic, some were operational, some were financial, and many were personal. Nothing, however, could have prepared us for the terrible tragedy that occurred that summer.

On the evening of July 6, a man came into one of our Washington, D.C., stores, just after closing at the end of the Fourth of July weekend, and opened fire, killing three of our partners. Their bodies were discovered at dawn the following day by the morning supervisor. It was a botched robbery. I got the call at about three in the morning, Seattle time. It was Dean Torrenga, the senior operational leader for the D.C. area. In our worst nightmares we could never have imagined that out of a simple cup of coffee we’d face a catastrophe like this — the three young people who died and the traumatic effect this tragedy had on their families, the community, and ourselves.

I wanted to comfort the East Coast leader with words of wisdom, but no words could blunt the pain we felt. Instead of planning or solving or recommending action, we both just cried on the phone for the loss to the families and the loss to our company. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were also crying for the loss of our innocence. Never again would it be business as usual. [Starbucks CEO and Chairman] Howard Schultz happened to be on the East Coast, and he got himself to D.C. within hours of the shooting. He spent time with the families, with the Starbucks people, and with the community. He didn’t look over his shoulder to gauge how he should react, how he could protect himself and the company from lawsuits, or how he could hide behind spokespeople and emergency protocols. As the chairman of Starbucks, he was a human being first, and his heart went out to all the people affected. It was a pivotal moment when everyone inside and outside the organization saw what you were supposed to do no matter what: Put people first.

Often in times of crisis, people become robotic. They search for a process. They try to take action, often to avoid pain. They shut down their emotions and “go through the motions,” taking care of whatever tasks need to get done in order for things to go on. Senior leaders of all organizations who have faced this kind of tragedy know that they have to be strong. They have to lead. They have to set an example.

What we did at Starbucks was simple. We were human — sadly, desperately, imperfectly human. We are always human beings first. Business is never “just business.” It doesn’t work that way. We can never separate our heads from our hearts.

Every organization can survive catastrophe if its people are open and honest and accept responsibility. In the famous Tylenol crisis of 1982, when seven people died from ingesting capsules that had been laced with cyanide, CEO James Burke understood the importance of facing the truth head-on. He didn’t hesitate to speak to the public, to say exactly what he knew, and to explain the frightening reality.

It was the same way when the three young people got shot in our Starbucks store. That’s when the humanity really comes out. When you follow the principles of personal leadership, you open yourself up and you can deal with anything.

For some unimaginable reason, most corporations are biased against showing care in the workplace. It always strikes me as one of the most ironic things in business when I see recruiting brochures or letters from the CEO that stress “care” as a core company value, but then the company acts in a way that is 180 degrees from the words they espoused.

We seem to admire the stoic, the person with a great poker face, the stone-faced negotiator. Caring is one of our most powerful resources, but often we don’t regard and elevate the leaders who master the ability to use it appropriately. The difference between an average manager and a great manager is that the latter understands that we can’t hide our caring and still be genuine or effective.

If we don’t truly care about other people and have the guts to show it — even when things go badly — our humanity disappears. We have to remember that it’s always about people. We may be rewarded for the results we achieve in the organization, but we’ll never know the results we might have achieved if we truly showed we cared. Results without caring are empty results. They are just not sustainable.

Caring isn’t easy, and it isn’t the same as being nice. We hired a young manager to work on strategy at Starbucks. He was one of the smartest people you’ll ever meet. He was sharp, and his analysis would always wow you. He’d figure out what needed to get done, and then he’d press forward to get the necessary results. So what was the problem? He was always out of kilter with the people on his team, and they complained that he was difficult to work with.

Sometimes, however, personal leadership requires that we care more about others than we perceive others care for us. If the results are there, if the commitment is there, if no one is being harmed, as leaders and team members we need to give our care without waiting for it to be returned.

With this manager’s knowledge, I went around to all his people and asked if they thought he cared about the business and about them — even if he didn’t show it, or didn’t show it in the way they wanted him to. To a person, no one doubted his abilities or the fact that they mattered. I asked each team member to speak up to the manager when they felt ignored or hurt. I asked them to take responsibility for caring — and they came through. Over time, he took on several big projects and achieved outstanding financial results for the company. Was he a perfect human being? No. But in the end, people were able to move past their expectations of how they wanted things to be. They were able to set aside their focus on me and to create a larger we.

People are not assets. Caring isn’t just about admiring the charismatic leaders, the people that everybody likes, or the in crowd. This is the big caring we do that shows we “care, like we really mean it.” It’s about words and actions that everybody sees and recognizes. There’s an old adage that says, “People don’t care how much you know, they want to know how much you care.”