Howard Behar: What You Can Learn About Branding From Starbucks

by / October 23, 2015

I spoke to Howard Behar, who is the former president of Starbucks Coffee Company North America and Starbucks Coffee International about how the Starbucks culture has changed since he was leading it, his business growth and branding philosophy, how to best support your talent, and what questions he asks candidates during interview. Behar captures even more of his experience at Starbucks in his book, “It’s Not About the Coffee: Lessons on Putting People First from a Life at Starbucks“.

Behar joined Starbucks in 1989 when the company had just begun to venture outside the Northwest region. Initially serving as vice president of sales and operations, he grew the retail business from 28 stores to more than 400 stores by the time he was named president of Starbucks Coffee International in 1995. Under Behar’s leadership, Starbucks opened its first location in Tokyo in 1996. Following this historic opening, over the next three years he introduced the Starbucks brand across Asia and the United Kingdom. After a two-year hiatus, he returned to Starbucks as President of Starbucks North America until his retirement in January 2003. He was a director of the Company from 1996 to 2008.

Dan Schawbel: How has the culture and business of Starbucks changed since you were in charge?

Howard Behar: Well I would put it this way, I probably wouldn’t get hired at Starbucks today and certainly not for the position I had. I didn’t have a college degree at the time so I think from that certain stand point I wouldn’t have gotten hired there at the level I was. But like all big companies they get more formal, more process, systems, rules and regulations. It still has it’s soul. I think that it’s never lost its soul and caring about people.

Schawbel: What are some of your principles of business growth and brand development?

Behar: Number one is being authentic. Be who you are. That word brand is an odd odd word because it implies that you can be anything you wanted to be. But brands need to be true to their values. It’s staying true to your values and being honest. Being true to who you are is your responsibility as humans. That counts from leadership. You either are or you’re not. Authenticity, truthfulness, and clarity with your values is the most important principle in order to run a business successfully.

Schawbel: Can you name some current leaders that you see as successful and why?

Behar: I can think of a number. John Mackey of Whole Foods is is competitive as hell but not greedy. I think he takes a dollar a year and he could’ve been a billionaire but didn’t. He loves his people greatly. Don’t get me wrong, he has high expectations but he isn’t greedy and looks out for his people. The other one whom I adore is Jim Sinegal from Costco. He just great. And of course the Nordstrom brothers. They’re good people and good merchants. If you ask me that’s what’s missing in the world. We want the transaction done and we want it quick but we don’t want to spend the time with other people.

Schawbel: How do you best support your talent to make a winning brand?

Behar: Give me desire over talent any day of the week. I’m talking about my world, I’m not talking about being a doctor, or scientist. When I say the word talent I’m implying brain power. In my world it’s important that I work with powerful, passionate and motivated people. I’ll take that any day of the week. We want someone with a tremendous desire for their work who can also get the job done.

Schawbel: What sort of questions will you ask people in interviews to learn about their traits and desires?

Behar: I have a number of questions. Very seldom do I ask them questions about their skill sets. What I want to know is who you are as a person. I ask questions like “tell me about your siblings” and “what would your siblings say about you?” What do they like about you? What do they dislike about you? Who is your best friend and why? What was the biggest struggle you’ve had with your parents and how did you resolve it? These are the questions that are important to me. If you’re coming in for a leadership position I want to know the worst thing that happened with someone who reported to you and how it got resolved. And then tell me about the best scenario that happened. I want to know who you are as a person, what your values are. Give me your top three values and then tell me about how they inform your decisions about your life.

via Dan Schawbel at Forbes

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