The book of the week is It’s Not About The Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks where Howard Behar shares his experiences and insights on behind the scenes decisions and leadership models at Starbucks.

What I have been mostly struck by in this book is his honesty and also in-depth explanations that about what people-centered leadership looks like.

A good leader understands that people have different priorities:

“it’s not possible to dictate to people what is and isn’t important to them. The feelings and thoughts will always be there” (p. 94).

A good leader gets that and knows that even during crises and challenges, we must hear people out and first understand what their priorities are in that given situation.

Only then can we really move forward and craft the collaboration that can benefit both.

For example, during this coronavirus crises, many managers already know that their staff is going to be going through a whole heap of emotions and re-setting of priorities.

Working through this situation, we need to be ready to listen, to really listen to what those core concerns, fears and hopes are and how we can find a way to address them in a manner that leaves both parties at least feeling understood.


Practicing compassionate emptiness

Howard’s insights on listening are essential learnings for any leader for any conversation: that we should be full of “compassionate emptiness” that is “listening with compassion but without preconceived notions” (p. 84).

It is about not jumping into the conversation but giving the person the space to say what is on their mind and actively listening, not to answer, but to understand.

The quote I absolutely love is this: compassionate emptiness is “full of compassion but empty of solutions. It ‘s very difficult to do” (p. 85).

It is extremely easy to jump into solution mode, to see the other person as someone needing help, because that makes us feel that we are onto something and that we are strong and helpful.

But in some cases, all it might take is to listen to the person, because they are seeking to be listened to first, and then understood.

Solutions can be found together but sitting on your hands, opening your ears and keeping your mouth shut at least for the majority of conversation can reward you with such deep insights that you’ll be much more willing to do it again.

What Howard has noticed is that just the mere act of listening can increase your business success, your personal relationships but also give you context-specific insights that you would otherwise miss.

You can better observe the other person, observe which words they choose to use, the way they move, the way the workplace has been set up, the way people interact, the levels of energy between people and within space.

Walls can always talk, and they do: sometimes just observing and listening can give you more insights than reading analysis reports.


“Quit digging” isn’t quitting or failure 

What I did find refreshing was his take on “failure”.

Trying something new, it not working out, and then changing your path is actually just movement:

“Sometimes you stay longer than you should but “quit digging” doesn’t mean “quit”. It means you stop following the path you are on because it’s not working. It doesn’t mean giving up; it just means changing” (p. 123)

Seen this way, we should be exploring different options, seeing whether we can make it work and if we can’t, then we change direction and try something else.

We are not defined by an option not working out for us. It just means that path did not lead us where we wanted to go, and we have all the possibilities to go back to that fork in the road and say wow, now I’ll take that other path instead.

If we are afraid of failing and caution also others not to fail, then we essentially kill innovation and decrease the belief we and others have in ourselves:

“People need to believe that they can make things happen and that they can try things, even if eventually they don’t work out, because you never know when the one you are working on will be the one that will work” (p. 119).

For example, Starbucks tried to introduce a bottled beverage into their collection and after months of product development and trials in stores, the customers really did not like it.

Rather than thinking “fail”, they knew that it could work but the drink in question wasn’t the right fit, and the company they were partnering with wasn’t the right partner.

Their new cold coffee, Frappucino, was already gaining waves amongst customers and bottling that into a cold beverage on the go became a massive success amongst customers.

Having gone through already the process of learning about bottled beverages, the pivot was easy to make.


People as partners, not employees

One of the key factors behind Starbuck’s success has been its way of thinking about the people who work there: not as employees, not as staff members but as partners.

Thinking about your employees as partners is a very different attitude because it puts people first: when tough times come, as we now have seen with so many companies, those ones that put people first are rare but they do exist.

It’s about being transparent what is going on at the company at all times, how the revenues are being impacted, and what difficult decisions are going to lie ahead.

Talking about these big picture issues with all partners is crucial because everyone needs to be on the same page in order for a great company culture to exist but also for everyone to understand how they can, in their roles, support the quest of finding solutions.

In this time when many of us are faced with uncertainty in our organisations, we need strong leaders who are able to take us as partners in that conversation, to allow spaces for us to pose questions and try to best of their ability to get everyone on board.

What these crises are at least teaching me that the human spirit, its ability for compassion, compassionate emptiness, and daring leadership, does shine through even in the midst of negative fearful news coverage.

I hope that we all can find spaces for ourselves and each other to have such conversations even amidst knowing that the world that awaits us will have changed.

But in the mean time we can ace people-centered leadership, both towards others but also towards ourselves.