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How Starbucks Built a Servant Leadership Culture: Q&A With Howard Behar

Howard Behar copyStarbucks has gained respect for not just being the largest coffee chain in the world, but also for creating a culture of openness and putting employees first.

Howard Behar, who served as company president from 1995 until his retirement in 2003, worked with founder and CEO Howard Schultz to transform Starbucks from a regional coffee chain with just 28 stores across the Pacific Northwest into a world-renowned brand. Among Behar’s top goals, was instilling a culture of servant leadership at the fast-growing chain.

Behar recently explained how and why he built a servant leadership culture at Starbucks:

Q: Why was instilling a culture of servant leadership important to you?

Behar: When I first started, Starbucks was still a small, entrepreneurial company that was very focused on its products and services. It wasn’t yet focused on the organization or people. I had been with much bigger companies before that and from those experiences, I had developed strong beliefs about the importance of employee engagement in building a successful business and lasting organization. Ultimately, I knew that how you treat your people is how they’ll treat your customers.

Q: What were some of the things you did early on at Starbucks to make that shift?

Behar: There were many small things that eventually led to big changes. At the first meeting I had with store and district managers, I put some questions out there: What do you like about Starbucks? What do you want to keep doing? What do you want to change? Nobody said a word, and I realized there was sort of a culture of fear about speaking your mind. I had to make it clear that nobody would get in trouble for speaking up. I soon started something called Open Forums where we’d invite baristas to ask whatever questions they wanted and talk about whatever concerned them. Even if they asked how much money I made or what my benefits were, I’d answer it if I knew it. Those forums helped opened up the organization.

Q: What can leaders do to instill or build a culture even when the company is growing rapidly?

Behar: In general, the most important thing leaders can do is live, eat and breathe whatever culture they want and then constantly reinforce and communicate their key values with employees. As organizations grow, they have to write things down, because otherwise it’s too easy to forget about your values and not live up to them. Culture is a funny thing. If you want to change it, it’s not about talking about it; it’s about living it.