Leaders Fueling Leaders: The Gift of Mentorship

A cup of coffee. A conversation. Two Starbucks leaders offer their views on the value of encouragement—a veritable “she said, he said” perspective on the power of mentoring and being mentored.

Early in her career, Michelle Gass (MBA 1999), now Starbucks executive vice president of marketing and category, received validation and encouragement from Howard Behar, Foster Fritzky Chair in Leadership and Starbucks past president, to grow and flourish as a leader, support she credits with helping her identify and develop her natural leadership style. Read their conversation below:

How did Howard Behar validate you as a leader early in your career?

Gass: I had the fortune to work directly for Howard when he returned from retirement to the role of President of Starbucks North America.  I had always heard many stories about Howard and his leadership of people, but until then had not benefited from it directly.  I will always remember one of my first one-on-one meetings with him. As I was readying to give him a full report on all my business topics, he stopped me and said he would prefer to use the time to talk about me; my leadership, my aspirations, my fears.  He told me he believed in me, that I could someday rise to very senior levels of leadership in the company, and that he wanted to work with me to help me get there.  I remember being quite surprised; I had never even considered or believed that I could be a high-level executive, never mind one for one of the most revered companies and brands in the world.  But through the work we did together Howard helped me develop my own leadership agenda; how I could lead in a way that was natural to who I was, and one that could have a positive impact on both the people I was leading and the business results I was driving. Howard is known throughout Starbucks for the following saying: “People don’t care how much you know…They want to know how much you care.” He walked the talk, and I got to follow in those steps.

What’s your perspective on mentoring Michelle Gass?

Behar: Most of the time mentoring is just about encouragement….with someone like Michelle I really was never going to teach her anything about her specific job….what I could add was encouragement.  I believed in her and I always let her know that I thought she had what it took to be a great leader.  Most of what we need from mentors is just someone who believes in us and gives us the courage and support to take on greater challenges.  It is amazing what people can accomplish if they know that there is someone that they can be totally honest with and that they can trust to look out for their best interests.  Michelle had all of the innate skills so my main job was just to make sure she did not doubt herself.  I knew without a doubt that one day she would have a very senior role in the company and I let her know that almost every day……guess I was pretty clairvoyant.

How has having a good mentor helped you succeed as a leader?

Gass: It starts with someone believing in you. People can achieve results far greater than they would have thought possible if someone is there encouraging and reassuring, through the good and tough times. Howard did that for me, as have other mentors that I have worked with over the years. Mentors also impart little gems along the way that you go back to as you mature as a leader. I remember one day Howard asked me if I came to work willing to risk my job to stand up for my convictions.  I was taken aback; of course I didn’t want to lose my job!  But over the years, as I have faced dozens of complex decisions and issues, I hear Howard’s voice in the back of my head with that question, and it has never served me wrong.

How did being mentored in your career impact your mentoring others?

Behar: I had great mentors all of my life. Sometimes they found me other times I found them. I was so interested in learning that I was relentless in looking for people that could not only help me grow my business skills but more importantly my human skills. The truth is that without all of the wonderful coaches I had along the way I would not have had the opportunities that have come my way. By the way, many people think that mentors need to be older, wiser, more experienced etc then we are, but that is not true at all.  Some of the best coaching I have had has come from peers and direct reports particularly people that were younger then I was. They always had a different perspective than I had and they were always challenging my beliefs. It is so important that we learn from everyone, not just those who are in more senior positions. At the end of the day, each of has a responsibility to help others whenever we can—just like Karma—you get what you give. It is amazing how much you can learn about yourself just by coaching others.