The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 45

Howard Behar

The Magic Cup

Should you be the same person at home as at work? That’s the question that former Starbucks International president Howard Behar asks in his latest book, It’s Not About The Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks. Howard makes the case that the honesty, authenticity, and love we cultivate in our personal lives is exactly what we should bring to business. Discover why values like honesty make the business sense, the right way to listen to the “board of directors” on your shoulders, and Howard’s amazing approach to firing people without bringing them down. Listen here.

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The Magic Cup: A Business Parable About a Leader, a Team, and the Power of Putting People and Values First
It’s Not About the Coffee: Lessons on Putting People First from a Life at Starbucks
Bio: Howard Behar is a renowned business leader, author, speaker, and mentor who has influenced the lives of numerous men and women at all stages of their careers and at all levels and roles. Shaped by his experiences working in his parents Seattle market, schooled in operations and management in consumer-oriented retail business, and part of the leadership triumvirate that built the Starbucks brand, Behar is the ultimate “servant leader” who is known for such memorable lessons as “The Person Who Sweeps the Floor Should Choose the Broom” and “Only the Truth Sounds Like the Truth.”


Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman Partners. We help companies achieve ambitious goals by strengthening leadership throughout the organization. I created this podcast to share ideas that you can use to become a more powerful and courageous leader.

It’s one thing to have vigorous ideas about what makes really strong leadership. It’s another entirely to live them and to practice them. We have with us today Howard Behar. He is both a speaker, and an author, and a mentor. In my view, most importantly, he comes at those things having been a renowned business leader. Howard served Starbucks for a combined 21 years as both an officer and a board member. He was president of North America and the founding president of Starbucks International.

Here is a guy who’s written several books about leadership, and he is someone who’s actually lived it on the ground. What I want to talk about with him today is what that looks like. How do we bridge the gap between ideas that we always think about in terms of good leadership and ideas that might even feel a little motherhood and apple pie like trust, and accountability, and things that we know for sure are important to do and to accomplish, like showing up with hope, and forgiveness, and focus, but on the other hand, tend to be very, very hard to put into practice effectively and appropriately.

Howard, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Howard: Thank you. It’s nice to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Peter: It’s my pleasure. It’s so nice to have you with us. I’m very interested, Howard, in this idea of leadership in practice. I actually want to start with a little bit of your story. One of the things that I find very interesting is we look at various established leaders, people who have achieved great success in their careers, and it seems like they were always destined to be there, but in reality, when you were 19, 20, 21, 22, you weren’t necessarily destined to be there.

None of us are, and so I’m very curious. How did you begin your career, and what were ways in which you began to see your focus and your interest in these leadership qualities early on that helped you to move forward in your career to the success that you’ve had?

Howard: I don’t think any of my high school teachers would have predicted that I’d be president of Starbucks Coffee certainly, and of course, nobody predicted Starbucks Coffee for that matter. I’ll tell you how it really started is that when I was in my mid … I had interest in it. I was a leader in college and became a leader in the terms of managing some small furniture stores. I was interested not so much in the theory, but in the results of leadership because I was always in sales-oriented organizations.

When I was in my mid-20’s, I was challenged. My values were challenged, but I didn’t even know what those values were. Actually, Howard was challenged and who I was, and I had a chairman of a board of a company called to me one day and said, “Howard, you’re a good guy, and we’re glad that you got promoted, but there are some things that you may want to think about changing in your life.” He said, “You always show your heart on your sleeve, and great executives don’t do that. The other thing they don’t do is when they’re in a meeting, they don’t always express their opinions right up top. They say something like, ‘Let me think about it for a while, and I’ll get back to you,’ showing that you’re thoughtful.”

I was so stunned by that because I’ve just been promoted, and I thought they knew who I was. I was a happy-go-lucky guy, but I was out there all the time. I’m naturally authentic. I wasn’t authentic in the definition that you’d find in all the management books, but I was just being Howard. The problem was when he said those things to me, I had no ability to counter them. I had no ability to ask a question, “Well, what do you mean? What would you change about me, and what is it that you don’t like about what I do?”

Because of that, it began a journey for me of trying to figure out who Howard was. First of all, what were my values? What mattered to me? Second of all, what was my mission in life going to be? What did I want to accomplish in my life? Third of all, how do those values turn into actions because values are just words until you put actions behind them? You have to actually think about it. If you say that your … “My first value is honesty,” what does that mean? What things … What white lies will I tell? Which ones won’t I tell? What will I do?

You begin a process of thinking about self and introspective, and then the fourth one was deciding on how I want to live my life, and I came up with my 6 Ps which are purpose, passion, persistence, patience, performance, and people. That journey, once I started to think about myself, and decide who I was, and started to practice those things, I started to think to myself, “Well, who are other people? What do they stand for, and why do they stand for those things?” I became first a conscious competent of Howard, and then all over time, a conscious competent about other people.

Peter: One of your books was “It’s Not About the Coffee: Lessons on Putting People First from a Life at Starbucks,” and I read that story. That’s when I started to take notes. It was early on in the book. I think page 3, and I started to take notes because I found it to be such an important moment, the moment in which people say to you, and this is a moment that many of us actually hit when we’re 4 years old . . .

The moment someone says to you, “Who you are is not acceptable, and you need to put on this mask, right? This mask is not going to be natural to you and it’s not going to be comfortable to you, but it’s what makes US all comfortable, and so we would like you to wear this, and that will please us.” Most kids, when they’re 4 years old who want to please their caretakers will say, “Absolutely, I’ll put on that mask,” and they begin to alienate themselves from themselves in order to please other people, and you didn’t do that, it sounds like.

Howard: Bingo, right? I probably did as a child, right? I didn’t know it, but I had to determine. I call it “wearing your hat,” so it’s the same as a mask. The hat that you put on in the morning when you wake up and you look across the bed from you and your significant other is lying over there. If you have to change your hat to a significant other hat, you better evaluate your relationship. If you’d go to work and you walk in the front door of Starbucks and say, “Uh-oh, I better put on my Starbucks hat,” you better think twice about where you’re working.
Peter: Let me challenge you a little bit on this. Shouldn’t you be different as a leader at Starbucks than you are with your significant others? You might have this commanding authoritative role at Starbucks whereas with your significant other, that’s inappropriate, and so don’t you have to shift who you are a little bit or how you show up? Don’t you have to quiet certain elements of yourself and accentuate other elements? It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a different person, but don’t you have to shift and shape a little bit how you express who you are depending upon who it is that you’re dealing with or what role you’re playing in that moment?

Howard: Yes and no. There’s this whole argument going on now between authenticity, right, between … Who’s the guy from Harvard? Goldsmith … or no, Goldmark?

Peter: Bill George?

Yeah. It was Bill George and Jeff …

Peter: Pfeffer.

Howard: Pfeffer.

Peter: They’ve both been on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Howard: Yeah. I know Pfeffer really well, and I got in this argument with him. I said, “What are you talking about? Of course, we don’t say everything that’s on our mind all the time.” I mean, we all have filters, and filters are good, but we still need to be who we are, so I would challenge you back. I would say, “If you want to have a fulfilling life, then being who you are in all situations works much better.”

Now, that doesn’t … When you’re giving a speech in front of 5,000 people, it might be how you come across and what you do might be different than when you’re sitting at the dinner table talking to your kids. Of course, but who you are, and what you stand for, and your values, and how those get interpreted should come out the same.

If you say you’re an honest person, then honesty is honesty. White lies at work are no better than white lies at home, and if you say that you trust … you give trust before you get trust, that applies everywhere, so I don’t really subscribe that to that. Yeah, we are different. No question. There are things that we do differently, but what people really want from us is us, and it’s hard to be not be us at home and not be us someplace at work.

I’ll give you a great example. I live in Seattle, so we have these big technology companies, and there was one leader … Probably, the most successful high-tech companies was a yeller and screamer. If somebody bring an idea that he thought was stupid, he would start swearing at him and tell them how stupid they were and that was the stupidest idea. I guarantee you, he wouldn’t go home and do that with his kids because I know his wife.

Peter: I think that’s right. I think that there’s this distinction. Let’s make this distinction which I think is an important distinction between what you do and how you do it. You might be both truth tellers. You and this guy are both truth tellers, right? Let’s just say that you’re both willing to say the truth, but how you say the truth is very context-specific. With someone, you might go right out and say, “This is the truth and you have to face it.” To someone else, you might ask some questions and be a little softer.

It reminds me. There is this story that I remember hearing of this Buddhist monk who is teaching meditation. He was in the middle of a pleasant conversation with one of his students, and then he saw another student come by. He said with a smile on his face very pleasantly, “I’m sorry. Let me interrupt this one moment. I just need to talk to him. Hold on. Stay here.” Then, the other student came up, and he looked at him, and he says angrily: “What are you doing? You’re not even meditating. You’re just wandering around with your eyes. Focus. I need you to focus. Go back and do it again.”

Then, the person walked away, and the monk turned back to his student and laughed, and said, “He needed that. Okay, so now. What were we talking about?” It was telling the truth, but it was telling the truth for him in this particular way in a way that it needed to be heard as a teacher by the person who he was telling it to, and I imagine that how we convey trust, how we convey truth, how we convey accountability might be different depending upon who it is that we’re conveying it to.

Howard: If you’re going to do that, then you better ask for permission before. You better have positive rocks on the scale that you’re able to do that. If that just comes out of nowhere … I’ve seen that example, and what it does is it … Look, people … Yeah, we’re all different. We all need to come at things a little different way. Certainly, some that I’ve worked with for 25 years, we have a lot of shortcuts to a conversation. My wife and I have been married for 39 years. We can almost say what’s on the other person … what’s going to come out of the other person’s mouth.

Certainly, I wouldn’t walk in to a room of people that I’ve never met before and start yelling and screaming about something that I’d be or about something that made me mad. No. I would maybe tiptoe in. I don’t know what I would do, but yeah, there are those differences, but what people need from us is consistency. They need to know who we are, and they need to know that there is love in our heart. The person that you talked about that the monk screamed that, I’m going to assume that the monk had already … that that person knew that the monk loved him because otherwise, it’s so out of context [inaudible 00:13:19] monk was. Maybe in a context, it can destroy things, and I’ve seen it happen.

Peter: I think that’s very true. I think it’s a beautiful premise that you’re bringing up which is that anything we do should be in the context of a relationship in which the other person feels cared for.

Howard: Yeah, exactly. There it is right there. With love in your heart, right, and caring in your soul, you can almost say anything to anybody. In 50 or it’s almost 60 years of running businesses, 55 years, right, I’ve fired a lot of people in my life. As long as I did it with love in my heart and as long as there were no surprises, it’s amazing what you could do and how people would walk out with their head held high, and that was always the goal. Even when you’re delivering tough message about nonperformance, it can be done, but it had to be done in a way that kept people whole.

Peter: Let me ask you a question. Have you been burned in the past or felt betrayed?

Howard: Yeah. You mean had been burned by somebody?

Peter: Yeah, burned by someone or felt some sense of betrayal if you’re caring because caring is risky. The risk of caring is that you may feel betrayed.

Howard: Yeah, sure. Absolute …

Peter: I think this is a very important question for any one of us who has an open heart and wants to really reach out and care. The vulnerability that’s created there is you may be betrayed.

Howard: Yeah.

Peter: The question that I want to ask you to share with people is, how do you both maintain that openness and that open heart, and not lose trust in the rest of the world when you feel betrayed because the person hasn’t been trustworthy or because you’ve been hurt? Maybe they’ve been trustworthy and you’ve just been hurt for whatever reason. How do we overcome that in order to not lose our faith in humanity in our hearts and caring?

Howard: I grew up with a mother that … She came to United States in the early 1900’s. She was [left in Lafayette 00:15:45], and she grew up with the Russian Cossacks, so “Fiddler on the Roof” is her story. Third floor … Lived in a farm. It’s almost identical in a sense, and she grew to distrust anybody that wasn’t Jewish, and that’s what she brought with her. Over my years, she … That came about, and I remember thinking about it. I said to myself, “I am never going to live my life like that ever,” and so I just have this … I had an affirmation, and I have this that I give trust before I get trust.

Even when sometimes I get burned, I still practice trust again. Now, if somebody burns me once, shame on you. Shame on them. They burn me twice, shame on me. I have those conversations, but I always assume positive intent. I’ve been burnt hundreds of times, but I just don’t go back to that. I just don’t allow myself to go there because I want to assume in my life good intent because the minute I go to the other way, I go to the other side of the street, [then I lose power 00:16:52].

Peter: Is it as simple as a choice? The way you’ve described this, it’s a choice that your mother was a certain way, and you made a choice to say, “I’m not going to be that way.” Is it as simple as saying, “Okay. I’m going to trust,” and what do you do when the natural feelings that maybe you have ancestrally, maybe you have both passed on culturally and also passed on by your mother that lead you to say, “Ooh, will I be safe here? I’m not sure that I’m safe here.” What do you do to counter that?
Howard: It’s a lot. I’ve been doing affirmations my whole life or since I’ve been in my 20’s, and I do that. Look, I have a little board of directors that sits on my shoulders, and there’s about 10 of them, and I’ve gained them all. There is one that sits up there that says, “Howard, be careful.” Stalking me all the time, “Howard, be careful. Howard, be careful,” but I have learnt to listen to the one that says, “It’s okay, Howard. It will be okay. There’s nothing here that can harm you permanently. It might scrape you and might cut… nick you a little bit, but there’s nothing in here that can harm … either go with it.” That’s just how I manage it, and I have learned to manage my life like that.

Peter: That’s a great image. Can you share with us some of the other little people in your board of directors on your shoulders?

Howard: Yeah. I have one that’s always telling me how great I am, particularly if I give a speech and I get a standing ovation. God, that little guy will say, “Hey, Howard. Fantastic, fantastic. That was unbelievable. You are fantastic, Howard.” Then, there’s another one, “Howard, calm down, big boy. You’re not that good,” but I choose to immediately go to the other one who says, “You’re not that good. You got to keep working at it, Howard. There are no free lunches in this world.” Right?

I have one … Honesty is my first one. We all have a little larceny in our system, right? It’s just part of life. I’ve got honesty on my values for 45 years on my top of my values list. One day, I was about 68 years old, and I was the chair of the board of the foundation at the University of Washington. I was going to the campus 3 times a week for meetings, so I buy these parking passes, 10 for a hundred bucks. You could park anywhere. They couldn’t give you a ticket no matter where you park in. I really had a deal. I loved it.

One day, I go and I parked, and you had to sign the date and the [end 00:19:16]. I didn’t have a pen. All I had was a pencil, a dark pencil. I put it on my dashboard. The next day, I had to be back in a meeting, and I pulled out a parking spot. I looked down at that, and one little voice said, “Hey, Howard. You give thousands of dollars to the University of Washington. They won’t mind if you just erased that and put in there.” Then, immediately, the other voice, the voice of honesty said, “Howard, wait a minute. What does honesty mean to you?” That was about a 2-second conversation, but that’s how it goes. I think if you want to have a fulfilling life, you got to learn to manage that board of directors effectively.

Peter: There’s a concept in Judaism where we talk about yetzer hara and yetzer hatov. Ra is bad, tov is good, and it’s like the good inclination and the evil inclination.

Even if you act beautifully, above reproach in every way, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have evil inclinations or you don’t have the temptation, and each one of your board of directors is a duality – “Wow, you’re awesome. You’re the best,” or, “You’re nothing,” and you find your way in between that. Even in a life lived following principles that you believe in, it’s not always easy, and it doesn’t mean that the inclination to negate those values that you have chosen disappears. You have that inclination at the same time.

Howard: Exactly. That’s what leadership is all about. That’s what we’re talking about is this conversation and this dialogue because look, everybody gets mad. I have a temper. Sometimes, I get emotional, all that stuff … is to be able to listen to yourself, and when you screwed up, which I’ve done a lot in leadership situations, to come back in and clean it up. For most of the time, I put positive rocks in the scale, so when I screw up, I can come back in and say, “I own that. I am sorry.” At the end of the day, that’s … What leadership is about is learning to lead self first. The most important person you’ll ever have to lead, right, is you. You get that right, everything else is easy.

Peter: I love it, and it’s true. Let me ask you a question that came up to me as I was reading, and I was thinking about layoffs. I was thinking about the juxtaposition between truth telling and layoffs, and there’s a moment at which you decide or you’re part of a committee or a group that decides, “We’re going to have to do layoffs,” but it’s not yet appropriate to share that information with people.

The truth is clear once you’re telling them. Once you’re speaking about it, you can share with people, and you can say, “This is why, and let me be honest, and let me tell you where it’s coming from, and I’m not going to lie to you, and I’m going to tell you like it is,” but what I’m curious about is how you manage yourself in the moment between when you’ve decided this is something that you’re doing, but you can’t yet announce it, and it feels like you can’t actually be truthful in that moment. How do you do that? How do you manage yourself?

Howard: The key is is to close that gap as fast as you can. You cannot live with it for weeks. I believe once you’ve made decisions, right? Part of the decision-making process in something like layoffs is to get the plan done, and then to communicate as effectively and as efficiently as you can. Look, what I found out is … It was the first time I had ever been through layoffs where I had to lead an organization through it. I’d never even done it before.

The layoff list got left on the copier at night, and it got out that night. It was a Friday evening, and all of a sudden, the drumbeats started hitting, and now it was out. Everybody knew something was happening, and I called my team together. I asked my team, “What should we do?” There are people on the team that said, “Ah, just tell them that we’re just talking. There’s nothing we know yet. There’s nothing … not going to happen or whatever.” My administrative assistant looked at me, Laurie Christmas. I’ll never forget her name, and she said, “Howard, Only the truth sounds like the truth.” It’s on my back … It’s on my back wall here someplace. You can’t see it with all the …

Peter: I like it. You have a lot of quotes there on your back wall.

Howard: I do. Only the truth sounds like the truth. That next Monday morning, I got the whole company together. It was 1,500 people, and I laid out the whole thing. I said, “I don’t know exactly who’s going to get laid off right now, but here is what’s going to happen.” I thought I was going to get my head handed to me, right? I was newly appointed president and here, broken trust already.

One person stood up and said in front of the whole group, “Howard, I really appreciate you standing up and telling us the truth. I don’t know if I’m going to be one of the ones that gets laid off, but I’ll tell you what. I‘ll do everything I can to help you and to make this situation easier for everybody else in this room.” One by one, everybody stood up, and that’s how we did it. We got through it.

To this day, to this day … That was 35 years ago. To this day, I run into people that were there during the layoffs of that company, and they all remember it, and they all take pride in it. Many of them were people that got laid off. Close the gap. Tell the people the truth. Don’t surprise them. You don’t need to surprise them. Let’s just do it. It’s our own fears that get to us. It’s not what really is going to happen.

Peter: What do you do in that moment? You said your own fears. What do you do in that moment when you know the truth, you know you need to share the truth, you know it’s your value and it’s important, and the only thing that sounds like the truth is the truth, and yet you feel the fear, you feel this emotional resistance? How do you manage that moment? That’s a really important moment.

Howard: I allow myself to feel it. Not the fear, but … The fear is there, but the emotion of the day because if I can’t put myself into how people are going to feel, then who am I? If I can’t be with my heart and soul into their brains, into their heads, and in their emotion, then I’m not a human being, and so I go there, and I cry. I feel bad about it, and I cry. It’s just part of who I am, but I just believe in that. I don’t try to just … I don’t ever try to justify it.

Look, everybody can say, “Well, it’s for the good of the company,” and yeah, there’s truth to that because sometimes, you just have to do it, but the truth of the matter is it’s for the survival of the shareholders, so just put it all on the table and be honest about it. That’s what I try to do, no baloney.

Peter: That’s great. Howard Behar was president of Starbucks, and has written a couple of books. “It’s Not About the Coffee: Lessons on Putting People First from a Life at Starbucks.” Most recently, the business fable “The Magic Cup: A Business Parable.” Howard, it’s such a pleasure to both meet you, and to speak with you, and to talk about your learnings and your practices of these principles that are so important and yet very hard to show up with at times because it takes courage, great courage. Thank you for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Howard: Thanks, Peter. Thanks for having me.

Peter: If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive as well as access to my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode and to Bryan Wood who created our music. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the next great conversation.


  1. Ell says:

    Thank you for this interview. I particularly enjoyed the section about trust, as this is an issue I struggle with. Hadn’t thought of it as ceding power, and I like the idea of giving before you get.

    Thank you too for making the interview available in transcript form. I’m not an audio learner, and reading is my preferable style of learning.

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