Welcome to our interview with Howard Behar. Howard is a well-known business leader, author, and speaker who has influenced the lives of many men and women. During his time as president of Starbucks International, the company grew from 28 to 15,000 locations. His latest book is The Magic Cup: A Business Parable About a Leader, a Team, and the Power of Putting People and Values First.
Welcome Howard, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of Exploring Forward Thinking Workplaces 2.0.
Bill Fox: How can we create workplaces where more voices matter, people thrive & find meaning, and change & innovation happen naturally?
Howard Behar: I have this little saying, “The person who sweeps the floor chooses the broom.” What I mean by that is the person who has a responsibility in certain areas is given the authority, responsibility, and accountability. That means you’ve got to give them room to make mistakes and to grow primarily as people first, and then as employees.
The key word here is trust. What makes a family healthy? What makes it so the kids can strike out on their own? What makes it so our partners can stretch out on their own? It’s the trust we build with each other—that’s what has to happen in organizations too. When you have trust, it’s amazing what can happen.
They go out there and do things that serve each other and serve their customers. It’s not complicated. It’s half building trust and caring about each other while encouraging each other. As a leader, it’s giving them responsibility and accountability to let them “choose their broom.”
You know it’s not really employees and customers. That’s a word we all use to describe with who we work and do business. It’s one human being serving another human being. That’s what it is. At the end of the day, that’s what we were put on the earth to do. It doesn’t make any difference what your job description is or what your title is; we’re all servers of human beings.
Bill: What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Howard: I think, first of all, it’s about always being open and honest. Lots of communication. Setting expectations so that they’re clear and getting agreement on those expectations. It’s primarily what I talked about in the previous question, if people feel like they’re trusted and that they have responsibility and accountability, they’ll give you their attention. It’s just automatic.
Employees want to hear you because they know you want to hear them. It’s the same thing that happens in a family. What allows your kids to give you their attention? It’s when they feel trusted and not judged. 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.
That’s the same thing that goes on in a company or organization. It’s that whole dynamic of letting them be, setting expectations, gaining agreement on those expectations, and let them go for it. It’s amazing how they listen and give you their attention when that’s done.
Bill: What do people really lack and long for at work?
Howard: Being treated with respect and dignity. Being dealt with as a human being and not an employee. They’re not seen as an asset, but they’re seen as a person with all their good points and all their flaws—they’re accepted for that.
I say you want to be able to wear your hat, whatever hat you choose to wear. I’m not talking about the roles we play; I’m talking about our values no matter where you are.
When people are allowed to be themselves at work, whatever that is—within the context of achieving the goals of the organization—then that just happens. That’s what they long for. It’s the same thing our significant others long for—they can be themselves when they’re with us.
Bill: What is the most important question management should be asking employees?
Howard: 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?
Bill: What’s the most important question employees should be asking management?
Howard: The one I particularly like for new hires is, “What’s the gap between what we say we do and who we are and what actually happens?” “What’s the intrinsic reward, recognition and penalty structure inside the organization not what’s stated?” “How do I live within that gap?” And another question every employee should ask, “What happens to me if I make a mistake?”
Bill: What is the most important question we can ask ourselves?
Howard: Who are we? What are our values and how are we going to bring those values to life in our daily lives, our work, our family, and our spiritual life?
Bill: In your book It’s Not About the Coffee, you state that one of the most important things is for us to discover our truth. Can you share your story?
Howard: I began that journey in earnest when I was 26 years old. Up until that point, I never thought about who I was, what I stood for, what my values were, or what I wanted to accomplish in my life. I was just happy having and living my life.
At 26, somebody asked me a question, which seems like a throwaway question. I was in the furniture business at the time. My boss asked me, “Howard, what do you love more, people or furniture?”
I had grown up in the home furnishings industry, so I always thought I wanted to be the best in the home furnishings industry. I was confusing that with who I was. 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?”
I came to the conclusion it wasn’t furniture that I loved, but it was people that I loved. Now I loved the creativity of furniture, and I enjoyed working in that context. But what I loved was working with people, being with people, and learning from people.
And most importantly, learning to manage me. Learning to figure out who I was, what my mission was, what my values were and how I was going to live my life—that journey has never ended. It’s constantly in my head. I’m always trying to deal with, “Who am I?”
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