Howard Schultz: Conquering the Crucible

Bill George

Howard Schultz True NorthFor him, getting ahead meant taking a look back.

Throughout Discover Your True North, successful individuals discuss how they became authentic leaders. This forum is a chance to delve deeper into the thoughts and journeys of these influential leaders. In this profile, we will talk about the importance of reflecting on your life story with Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz.

Thank you for joining us, Howard. We’ve read in Discover Your True North that you had a painful childhood; your father was injured and unable to work when you were young, leaving your family in poverty. Were you angry with your father?

My childhood was definitely difficult, and yes, for a long time I was angry with my father for leaving our family in crisis. I felt like he was an underachiever, that he was irresponsible. I basically thought that he didn’t try hard enough to succeed, and that it was his fault we were so poor, living hand-to-mouth. It’s a terrible way to feel about your own father. Later in my life, though, I came to the realization that my father was beaten down by a system that was never designed to help him, to support him in any way.

That’s part of why I try so hard to make sure Starbucks, as a company, takes care of our employees — we provide healthcare, even to part-time workers. I want to make sure that I’m not a part of the same type of system that broke my father. I want my company to help lift people up. These values are the most basic part of my business.

Well, something about your business strategy certainly works; you’ve created the world’s most well-known coffee brand. How did owning a coffee shop become a goal for you?

I didn’t really find the path I needed to follow for a while. I was working in sales at Xerox, and while I had a great job, I just didn’t feel I could be myself there. When I first walked into Starbucks Coffee — the original one! — at Pike Place in Seattle, way back in 1981 … something just clicked. I joined the company and quickly became the director of operations and marketing. I’d found a place where I truly thrived. It’s so important to do that. You have to find your voice — find your true path.

What made you decide to grow Starbucks into such a large company?

That’s an interesting question. In part, I think it’s my competitiveness; I’ve always had this drive. I wanted to get out of the poor part of Brooklyn in which I grew up, and I had to work tirelessly to do that, because the only way I could get to college was on scholarship. I got a football scholarship to Northern Michigan University, and it’s what set me on the path to success.

I don’t think I’ve ever lost that competitiveness, and it certainly drove me to expand.

But also — and this seems ironic, now — I had to get back to my roots in order to grow my business. That’s part of why it was so important for me to resolve my inner conflicts with my father, eventually, and learn to be proud of who I am and where I come from. My family is from Brooklyn, so, of course, I love a good Italian meal, and I love to see a diverse group of people all in one place, and to be able to interact with all types of people. On a trip to Italy once (talk about a good Italian meal!), I noticed that Milanese coffee shops were gathering places just like that. Intimate conversations happened there, people met up to spend time together, just enjoy each other’s company. I wanted Starbucks to be a place like that, and eventually, I wanted places like that to exist in communities all over.

It’s funny how things come full circle. I worked so hard to get out of the place I grew up, but ultimately, I couldn’t have built Starbucks without being proud of that place.

It seems like Starbucks was destined to succeed! Did you ever experience a setback on the way?

Of course! A few major ones, actually. When I was first trying to buy Starbucks from its founders, my biggest investor decided to try to buy the company himself. I got backing from Bill Gates, Sr. — father of the Bill Gates you know — and decided to stand up to the investor. He was furious. He was one of the most influential people in Seattle, and he told me I’d never work in that town again. It was a terrible moment.

I had to reach down deep and find those reserves. You never know what you have as a leader until you’re tested. I put together another financing plan, stood up to the investor, and ultimately bought the company.

So would you consider this moment one of your crucibles?

Oh, yes. I think my youth was certainly a crucible, but so was that experience.

What did it teach you about yourself?

To dig deep. You have to take risks — sometimes, you have to take more risks than other people think are safe. You have to dream bigger. If I had taken the practical route in that situation, I’d have given up. But I didn’t. In that moment, I had this dream — I saw something about what Starbucks could be, something that other people couldn’t see. And as it turns out, I was willing to take great risks to realize a great dream.

Thanks so much for your time, Howard. Your story is inspiring, and we hope that other people who may be struggling to understand difficult or painful life stories will resonate with it and learn to use their stories to grow as authentic leaders.

Thank you for having me. This is why I like to tell my story to others — there can be many turns on the way to your own True North, and learning to come to terms with yourself and where you’ve come from is often the first major one. I want people to know that whoever they are, whatever they’ve experienced, they can learn to be proud of themselves. You have to believe in yourself, and know that wherever you’ve come from, you really can succeed.

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