No Clouds in his Coffee: an Interview with Howard Behar
BY GRANT RUESCH
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Howard Behar, former president of Starbucks and keynote speaker at the 2010 Rocky Mountain Corporate Growth Conference. I had been told by those who know him that Howard is an interesting, engaging and great guy, and they were right. After just a few minutes with him, I realized this wasn’t going to be an interview at all; rather, it was a discussion with a person who felt like a friend. Howard was an engaged listener, interactive in his responses and able to communicate his ideas in simple ways. Let me share some of his insights. You won’t want to miss his address at the conference.
About entrepreneurial startups: In some ways it is as if by magic; people with dreams and passions don’t think about all the ways they could possibly fail. They simply put their heads down like the Boston cab driver and persist. They are absolutely fearless. When the founders first come together and find a way to prevail, it is not required that they put their egos aside. But they must find a way to meld their temperaments and manage their egos for the greater good of what they are building together.
About managing through tough times: It is important to always understand the reality of what is happening in the overall business climate. If we are in the middle of a hurricane but don’t realize that it is a hurricane, then we tend to blame the skipper or the first mate for all the bad stuff that is happening. If you’ve expanded operations too quickly and you get caught in a general economic downdraft, then you can’t allow yourselves to go into denial mode. You’ve got to react decisively and quickly. It is not about feeling guilty. It is about making the hard calls on what needs to be done.
About managing people: People are not corporate assets; they are people. We don’t serve customers; we serve people. Whether you are managing a startup or an ongoing enterprise inside of a conglomerate, it doesn’t matter; you must treat people with care. Leadership means being empathetic and fair minded. There are many different styles of effective leadership, but they all involve humanity. The servant leadership model is powerful, and it is proven to work in organizations of all types – political, business and religious. Servant-leaders are defined by the priority they place on the needs of colleagues and those they serve, in effect acting as “stewards” of their organization’s human and other resources.
About the current economic environment: It is gut-wrenching for sure; but it will pass. People with vision and courage are starting new businesses in the middle of all this turmoil. It has always been this way. Things were awfully bad back in the early ’80s, yet new businesses were started. Entrepreneurs don’t sit around and wait for a set of GDP growth numbers to pursue their dreams. They throw caution to the wind. It is do or die, but they are not dissuaded. As human beings, we are resilient, and we get over the pain.
About effective communications: You can talk to people across the organization in terms they don’t understand if you want. This will make you look smart and powerful spouting off arcane financial acronyms, Six Sigma terminology, market capitalization statistics, and all the rest of it. But you do so at your own peril. It is better to identify your problems, work with your team to develop solutions and then look after things going forward to make sure they are on track. The key is – simple messages, easily told, often repeated.
There you have it. Audience members at the Rocky Mountain Corporate Growth Conference can enjoy learning more about Howard Behar from his keynote address on March 18.