Leadership

How this ex-Starbucks executive’s struggle in his 20s helped him find his calling

During his tenure, retired Starbucks president Howard Behar, now 72, helped the coffee company grow from a local chain to over tens of thousands of stores worldwide.

Though Behar found success developing Starbucks into the $80 billion company it is today, he tells CNBC Make It that he was rather lost in his 20s, struggling with figuring out a career or calling.

Today, Behar is an active speaker with the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Leadership and frequently travels to share his best practices in leadership.

In 1962, Behar took a few years of classes at a community college in Washington, but he never graduated. While working at a furniture company, the CEO told Behar that he couldn't be a great executive if he showed emotions at work.

"I was in my mid-20s and I went through a struggle in my life where the CEO wanted me to be something other than I was," Behar says. "He thought I was too emotional, that I wore my heart on my sleeve and I got too involved with the people."

Behar says his main issue was feeling like he didn't really know who he was or what he wanted in life.

"He tried to push me to change and I really went into depression because I was trying to be something I wasn't," Behar says. "But it was just innate, I was just doing what came naturally to me. It caused a great conflict inside of me and I finally quit."

In a 2016 study of 26,000 LinkedIn members, the networking platform found that millennials (those who were age 18 to 35 at the time) felt a lesser sense of purpose than their Gen X and Baby Boomer counterparts.

Notably, the late German psychoanalyst Erik Erikson once theorized that while young adults — in this case, millennials — are focused on building relationships, middle-aged adults increasingly feel purpose as they have contributed to society for more time.

"I've been through a lot. I've had ups and downs, I've been fired and I've made mistakes," Behar says. "But at the end of the day, I came to the conclusion that there is only one role any of us will ever have and that is serving others."

After quitting that job in his mid-20s, Behard decided to figure out who he was and what really mattered to him. He created a list of his values and what his mission in life was. Over 50 years later, Behar still keeps this list handy.

Behar began his career at Starbucks in 1989, at age 45, and officially retired in 2003. In the years while working closely with former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, he coined the company's catchphrase, "We aren't in the coffee business serving people, we are in the people business serving coffee."

"I think my role at Starbucks was that, getting everybody to understand and agree to live by that idea, that we were a people-centered company," Behar says.

"From then on, I was a student of myself first," Behar says, "and then I became a student of others."

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