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Profiles in Business

Howard Behar: It's Not About The Coffee

Story by Rita Hibbard. What makes a business compassionate? Is it office birthday parties? Free coffee and tea? Free parking for the “employee of the month?” Howard Behar thinks it’s all about hiring people “who want to serve other human beings.” Do that, he says, and you will succeed in business and live a happier life in the bargain.

The former president of Starbucks International who has written a book, “It’s Not About the Coffee,” and become a speaker on organizational and personal leadership, advises conducting business in a manner that puts people first. For Starbucks, that has stayed the same, he tells interviewers, from when he joined the company with 28 stores, to the international force the company now is with more than 17,000 stores across the continents.

So back to the question, “What makes a company compassionate?”

Examples Behar gives include empowering employees and providing health insurance for employees .

“Health insurance for part -time workers is approaching the amount of money we spend on coffee,” said Behar, who retired in 2003 but served as a director of the company until 2008, in a 2010 speech at Hollins University.“The same with stock options (for all employees). We’ve had tremendous pressure from investors to get rid of these things because they cost a lot of money, but we won’t budge, because we think it’s the right thing to do.”

He writes in the book that, “It’s impossible to lead in business – or in life – unless you genuinely care about people. That’s what matters. Period.”

Behar calls it “leading with compassion,” whether it’s as business leaders, within small groups, or simply leading our own lives.

It’s not always easy, he warns. It often means having to step up and take responsibility.

“That’s the example we need to send, of who we need to be as human beings, rather than hiding behind things. At the end of the day, leading with compassion never stops. And being a leader is a 24/7 job, not just when it’s convenient.”

He gave the example of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz personally visiting the homes of each of three young Starbucks employees shot dead inside a Washington, D.C. Starbucks in 1997. One 18-year-old had been on the job a week. It was his first job. The other victims were 21 and 25 years old. Schultz made the visits on the day of the shooting, without consulting legal counsel or public relations advisers.

Schultz sat down the families of the victims and apologized and took responsibilities for the deaths, Behar said.

“It wasn’t Howard’s fault,” Behar said, “but he didn’t care, what mattered was he cared about those families and those children… He went from home to home to home and said, ‘we will do whatever it takes that your children will not be forgotten.’”

After the incident, the company established the Starbucks Memorial Fund and began dedicating funds to organizations working towards nonviolence in the D.C. area in memory of the victims. So far, more than $700,000 has gone into the effort.



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