The Starbucks Way: Meet Howard Behar

Howard Behar

Longtime Starbucks President Howard Behar will headline Thermostat Cultures Live on Nov. 10 in Columbus, Ohio. Here, the executive-turned-author, speaker and consultant talks about culture, priorities and why he’s excited to team with Jason Barger for a life-shaking day.

Q: Why is culture important?

A: Culture forms everything. Every organization, every individual. There’s a culture of one, if you really think about it. You are a person, and you have what I call this board of directors. They sit on your shoulders. They’re talking to you all the time. They say “Do this” or “Do this.” They form your personal culture around what your values are and how you’re going to live those values. When you get into a relationship with another person, like marriage, all of a sudden, you have a culture inside your relationship—how you treat each other, how you talk to each other, what your values are as a couple. And then you go to work in an organization—for-profit, non-profit or volunteer. Well, the organization has a culture, and now you’re part of it. And what you do or don’t do helps determine the health of that culture. Every organization has a culture. Usually it’s without intention, and that’s the issue. Who are you? What are your values? Are they written down? Do you act on them? What happens when somebody makes a mistake? What are the rewards, recognitions and penalties—whether they’re written or unwritten? Culture is about who you are or who you want to be. It’s about what your values are, what your mission is, what your greater purpose is.

Q: How do healthy cultures keep their values top of mind?

A: In a healthy culture, the values are always written down, and they’re always acted on. They should form your decisions.

Q: You helped build one of the most groundbreaking corporate cultures in history at Starbucks. How did you manage that while building the company from 28 stores to 15,000?

A: We engrained it by having it written down. We have this little book called the Green Apron Book, which talks about who we are and how we treat each other and the people we serve. You always have new people coming in. How do you get them to attach? You reward and recognize people who live up to the culture. You coach people who don’t to live up to that or move on to a place where they can be who they are. Starbucks has a people-centric culture, and that meant for us that we always treated people with respect and dignity—that was the first guiding principal. That meant if you didn’t do that, you had to learn how to do that, or you had to go someplace else to work. It didn’t matter what level you were.

Q: Can you share a specific example of how your team lived that out?

A: One of our stores was across the street from a nursing home. And in this nursing home, there was a guy they called Big Jim. He would come in at 2 p.m. every day and order a short drip and a blueberry muffin. They would put away a muffin for him, because they often sold out. And they would always write a note to Jim on his cup or the muffin wrapper: “Hey Jim, we love you” or “Hey Jim, the Steelers suck.” One day, 2 p.m. comes, no Jim. Three comes, no Jim. And one of the baristas took the muffin and drink across the street. The receptionist said, “I’m sorry to tell you, but Jim passed away last night.” The next day, one of Jim’s children came over and asked if the baristas could come to the funeral. As they walked into the funeral home, there were three big, round tables. And on the tables was every bag and every cup that they had signed something to Jim on—all the little sayings. Little did they know how much those things meant to Jim and how much they were a part of his life. To me, the lesson is it’s always the little things. They really cared about him. They weren’t doing it for the credit—they were doing it because they cared about Jim. That’s really treating people with respect and dignity. When you walk down the hall, say hi to everybody. Be involved.

Q: Who is doing culture well right now?

A: I think Google does a pretty good job in the technology field. Costco in retail. The Container Store. Trader Joe’s.

Q: You’re a big advocate for servant leadership. What does that look like to you?

A: To me, the shortest definition is a leader who works with people to help them achieve their own personal goals in the context and journey of achieving the organizational goals. It’s the combination of the two that really makes a servant leader.

Q: What kind of servant leader do you hope you are? Or, for that matter, what kind of human do you hope you are?

A: Well you know, I want to be a person that encourages people to live a fulfilling life—to achieve their goals, to grow as a human being, to grow as a professional, to contribute to the world in which they live. I want to always help people believe they can versus they can’t. If they make a mistake, I want to be there to help them. If they’re doing something well, I want to encourage them to keep doing more. Spencer Johnson said something great: Catch people doing things right. It’s so easy to catch people doing things wrong. It’s much better to catch people doing things right.

Q: You say we need to focus less on socialism vs. capitalism and more on what you call “peopleism.”

A: We should be here to help each other, encourage each other. If some people get rich, so be it. But that doesn’t make them more worthy. If some people don’t, it doesn’t make them less worthy. We worship false gods in this country. We worship movie stars and athletes when we should be worshipping people who help other people.

Q: What intrigues you enough about Jason and his work to be part of it?

A: Jason is a servant leader. I mean, Jason is a person that wants to bring the best out in people and wants to help them bring the best out in themselves. And those are the kinds of people I want to be around. Jason looks for unique ways to get people to understand the difference. That’s what (his book) Thermostat Cultures is about. That’s what (his book) Step Back From the Baggage Claim is about. That’s who Jason is. He adds value to the world. He gives people tools and skillsets and knowledge to help them be better human beings, to be better bosses, to be better spouses. I want to be around that. I want to be around people who make me a better human being.

Q: What excites you about the Thermostat Cultures Live event?

A: Well, I’m excited to do something with Jason. We’ve never done an event together. We’ve gone to see each other speak. We’ve read each other’s books. We talk all the time. But we’ve never done anything together. We talk about it all the time: How do we help people be better human beings? And to do this where he lives—I’m just really excited about that. I’m really looking forward to it.


Join retired Starbucks President Howard Behar along with author, speaker and leadership coach Jason Barger and others at Thermostat Cultures Live on Nov. 10, 2017 in Columbus, Ohio.

Reserve your seat for this interactive day to connect, learn, grow and thrive at