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To attain business success, put people first

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“We need to get rid of rules—real and imagined—and encourage the independent thinking of others and ourselves!”

“People are not ‘assets,’ they are human beings. People first before profits.”

These lines were not mouthed by a union leader, a social activist or a hyperventilating evangelist taking a swipe at greedy corporate executives. These are the words of Howard Behar, renowned leadership coach and guru, who has worked for many years as a senior executive at Starbucks and has helped the Starbucks culture flourish based on a people-centered approach.

In his inspiring book “It’s Not About Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks,” Behar gives a compelling message to those aspiring to be leaders in the real sense of the word—whether in business, in government, in the corporate world or in the academe.

He does not begrudge those whose vision for their organizations holds meaning or those who see to it that their companies are financially stable.

“Without people, we have nothing,” he says. “With people, we have something even bigger than coffee.”

And so his book outlines some no-nonsense principles that have been his guide as a leader—and yes, none of them has anything to do with coffee. He says these key principles entail showing people you care, building trust, holding yourself accountable, and knowing who you are and what you stand for.

Sharing memorable turning points in Starbucks’ history and business success, Behar says that if you regard employees and customers as creative human beings, everything else will take care of itself.

“If you think of your staff as people (not assets or labor costs), they will achieve results beyond what is thought possible. And if you think of your customers as people you serve (not sources of revenue), you’ll make a deep connection with them, and they’ll come back over and over,” he says.

Behar says he believes that as work becomes less hierarchical and the world economy becomes more and more about relationships and connecting, personal leadership becomes very important.

“It is people—in the best of times, and especially in the hardest times—who will inspire you, sustain and grow your organization, and get you through.”

As to the cynics’ contention about the current situation when companies are shutting down and employees are being laid off, as if screaming “it’s not about people now … it’s about making the numbers … it’s about survival,” Behar has this to say: “Yes, it IS about people. It is people who have the creativity, energy and passion to move us forward.”

“Even if financial resources are at hand to ease your business (whether from investors, banks, the government, good internal management, or family), it’s not going to make any difference if everyone isn’t committed, creative and purposeful about where you’re going … we need people’s creativity, which means doubling down on taking care of people,” he says.

Behar further dispenses gems of wisdom to would-be leaders who ought to balance action and thought.

“My motto is think like a person of action and act like a person of thought. The principles of caring, listening for the truth and being accountable all require consistent action balanced with thought and feeling. If you want to have an impact, if you aspire to make a difference, then you better start doing it. Nothing is worse than wasting your life in the false comfort of inaction.”


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