Putting People First

Last week, I had the honor of hearing (and meeting) Howard Behar, the retired president of Starbucks who led the company through its incredible growth from 28 stores to more than 15,000 stores worldwide. He spoke at the University of Louisville College of Business as part of the Menard Family Lecture Series, co-sponsored by the UofL Center for Free Enterprise, UofL Forcht Center for Entrepreneurship, and UofL Project on Positive Leadership (of which I am a proud member of the Board of Advisors and leadership resilience virtue expert.) 

Mr. Behar is committed to the development and education of future leaders and is a longtime advocate of Servant Leadership. His talk was about ‘Lessons on Putting People First from a Life at Starbucks’. He shared incredible life lessons from his experience and examples of how Starbucks has come to be such a successful organization because of its focus on people. 

He challenged us to be deliberate about genuinely putting people first in our organizations and shared so many practical nuggets we can incorporate into our leadership practice right now. I was so inspired by Mr. Behar’s talk and took lots of notes. This parallels the work I do in helping my clients build better leaders and better workplaces. 

I wanted to share a few of my key takeaways with you. Some of these are paraphrased, as I was taking notes as fast as I could.

  • Mr. Behar has a list of about 50 words / phrases that describes who he is. The list begins with his core values. Honesty is his first core value. 
  • Define the important things in your life. Write your values down and try to live your life by them.
  • Work for a company that reflects your values.
  • A unifying phrase inside the company to this day…. ‘we are in the people business serving coffee, not the coffee business serving people.’ [This is their ‘why’.]
  • He was a student of servant leadership and began studying it when he was in his 20s.
  • He tried to get people to understand that it really is about people. 
  • Give people the tools they need to do their job.  
  • Listen to the people who work for you. He told a story of when a manager in one of their locations had an idea to introduce a new beverage, now called Frappuccino, on their menu. She was turned down initially. After her persistence, Mr. Behar eventually decided to let her give it a shot. It was a huge success, and the rest is history. 
  • Leaders are responsible for the questions, not the answers. The answers come from the employees. Problems arise because leaders stop listening.
  • Love the people going out of the company as much as you love the ones coming in. (check out my post)
  • Servant leadership is not a leadership model, it is a life model, a values model. You do it not because of the money, but because it’s the right thing to do. Servant leadership is about giving.

What from these nuggets most resonates with you?

Thank you, Mr. Behar, for visiting the University of Louisville and for inspiring us!


She’s a woman on a mission, prepped and ready to help you create resilient leaders and a workplace that is poised to succeed. Having weathered her fair share of corporate and career crises of all sizes, Vivian Blade MBA, MBB, PMP, is a global leadership expert and thought leader who equips leaders with the resilience that inspires teams to recover quickly in the face of ongoing disruption and thrive in spite of insurmountable odds.

Vivian empowers leaders and organizations as a frequent keynote speaker for association conferences and in delivering transformative leadership development programs, executive coaching and consulting for corporations.

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