Strong Coffee – Howard Schultz named Fortune’s 2011 Businessperson of the Year

Strong Coffee – Howard Schultz named Fortune’s 2011 Businessperson of the Year

It appears that Howard Schultz seeks to live a good life. In this week’s issue of Fortune magazine (Dec. 12, 2011) an article celebrates Schultz being named Fortune magazine’s 2011 businessperson of the year by telling his business success story. Many anecdotes from his personal life and community activities are included, and provide a rich description of who he is as a person. His consistency of effort to be a good person, amid all the distractions that come with wealth, corporate success and public recognition strikes me as a clear example of his virtuous circle at work.

Schultz is the current Chairman and CEO of Starbucks, the ubiquitous coffee company that provides fuel for many morning meetings - and afternoon conversations, informal gatherings, quick lunches and after work shots of adrenaline.

In general most people are now comfortable with Starbucks though for a while that wasn’t the case. It was said to have grown too fast, gobbled up small coffee shops, and homogenized the landscape – all things good people in local communities worried about. Yet Starbucks also provided good jobs, exceptional benefits, shared profits with partners, supported community organizations and in quiet ways seemed to be changing people’s ideas about what a successful stable growing business could and should do to be a good community member.

A focus on the well being of people is ever present in the activities that occur at Starbucks – a legacy, I believe, of some early experiences in Schultz’s life, events that he had to observe and move thorough yet couldn’t control. His father’s exhausting work life - a series of low paid blue-collar jobs with no benefits and no health insurance - has been transformed in the working conditions provided for front-line people at Starbucks. It is not perfect for everyone yet is definitely a great place to work for most.

It is not just the fact that hourly workers at Starbucks are paid reasonable wages relative to their peers, provided benefits (including health insurance for people working 20 hours per week or more) and given the resources they need to do their work that makes Schultz an exceptional business leader. What makes him exceptional is the care and concern for others that guides the choices he makes in his life AND the fact that he does not shut this care and concern off when he makes decisions related to the business.

Schultz stepped away from the CEO position in 2000, and stepped back in during 2008 as he saw the company drifting away from its core values and mission. Some institutional investors advised him to scrap the health insurance plans for part-time employees, and he said no. Others have challenged the corporate support for community involvement that is integrated into the activities of every Starbucks store, yet that continues.

Schultz has expanded his own community activism, using the bully pulpit of his CEO position to speak out about the political gridlock facing the country – and challenge other CEOs to speak out as well. He’s offering support for job creation and providing every customer the opportunity to help by making a small donation to the “Create Jobs for USA” program he started. He’s giving people a way to participate in making improvements that we all know are needed in our society.

Schultz is quoted in the Fortune article as saying that after he came back to the CEO position in 2008 that he needed to transform the business as well as himself. While his professional success has always included an awareness and concern for others, he now seems to be moving through his life with greater strength and determination to speak out about the values and ethics that all business leaders can use to guide their companies.

Why does he do this? I’m not 100% sure as I haven’t had the opportunity to ask him directly. Yet it appears that he wants to lead a good life, to be an honorable leader, give back to those who have given to him and share the benefits of what he has been able to help generate. This is what trustworthy leaders do as they develop and live according to their virtuous circle.

And it works – for the business, for one’s own life and for the community that feels the positive impact. Howard Schultz is a great choice for businessperson of the year and let us all hope that his positive example inspires many more business leaders to think more about what they can give to others than take for themselves.