“We’re in the people business serving coffee,
not the coffee business serving people.”
~ Howard Behar
Once upon a time, there was a narrow storefront nestled among others located in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. In 1971, Starbucks opened with a simple mission, “to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.” This simple coffee shop focused on serving “the world’s finest fresh-roasted whole bean coffees.” It now boasts over 15,000 locations globally, but what sets Starbucks apart from most other companies is not its domination of the coffee industry, but the culture they have worked hard to develop. Starbucks’ success is not found in the coffee. Starbucks’ success is found in the people they employ.
Howard Behar worked for Starbucks for twenty-one years and was the founding President of Starbucks International. Behar discusses Starbucks successful growth in his book, The Magic Cup, a parable he shares to illustrate the “keys to success, culture, and building a sense of community.” Part of Starbucks’ success is the culture that was developed early on. When Behar first started working with the company, he made a point to get to know each employee, including their families, hopes, and dreams. He believed in Starbucks’ mission and wanted to support employees in achieving their goals.
He knew that as Starbucks continued to grow, it would become impossible for him to personally remain connected with each employee. He knew that continuing this culture would need to be intentional. So he started from the top down, beginning with himself. He inspired those in leadership positions to ensure they took the time to get to know each employee. If a manager overseeing a particular territory could no longer know each employee on a personal level, he knew that the territory was too large. It was important for the Starbucks culture and each employee to know that individuals in leadership not only knew their name, but was interested in their lives. “When the employee knows that the company cares about them, then the employee can freely care about the customer. When the customer and the community feel connected to the business, then the business thrives.”
As a part of developing a culture of caring, Starbucks employees’ performance is not solely based on how many cups of coffee they make or how many pastries they sell. Instead, employee performance is primarily focused on more meaningful measures, like, doing something over and above for another employee, customer, or the community. Another part of this culture focuses on hiring the right people. They hire individuals who believe in the mission of serving people.
Since 1971, Starbucks has become woven into the fabric of our lives. Many of us visit the same location every day, week after week. We come to appreciate when the barista greets us by name and knows our “usual.” We crave the simple human connection that gets us off to a good start each morning. We look forward to the simplicity. We value the consistency.
Starbucks’ leadership decided early on that their purpose was serving people. Coffee is just the mechanism they use to achieve their purpose. Higher education has a purpose too. While it may seem overly simplistic, its purpose is also serving people. Education is just the mechanism used to achieve this purpose and change people’s lives. However, what kind of culture are we creating? Do students know that we are in the business of serving people to the best of our ability or are we making that a well-guarded secret?
Students want to know that their chosen institution cares about them and their dreams. They want an institution that is invested in their individual success despite their tax-status, enrollment size, or new dorm facility. Students want a culture that focuses on serving people and creating pathways for their success.
“At Starbucks, the coffee has to be excellent,
from the sourcing and growing to the roasting and brewing.
The vision has to be inspiring and meaningful.
Our finances have to be in order.
But without people, we have nothing.
With people, we have something even bigger than coffee.”
~ Howard Behar
The same is true for higher education. Without students, we have nothing.