An Interview With One of My Most Memorable Leaders, Tom Haro

Updated: May 26

Every leader I’ve worked for has contributed to how I show up as a leader today but there is one in particular who had a significant imprint on my leadership style, philosophy and values and that is Tom Haro.

I was just twenty-four years old and working as a Training Manager at Starbucks when I first met Tom. I had risen through the ranks from Barista to Human Resources Coordinator and landed in the training department to support all corporate and manufacturing functions and his team was among my internal clients.

Tom eventually became my boss’ boss, supporting my aspirations to manage a line of business on a career development rotation. The intention was to work on his team for a year and then come back into training as a Training Director.

But what I didn’t see coming (although he claims he did) was that I loved sales and I was good at it. Five consecutive promotions later over a seven-year period resulted in me leading a portfolio of business west of the Mississippi river with team members in different cities.

The opportunity to learn from Tom’s coaching and leadership and my time in the sales division was one of the most pivotal moments of my career (you can learn more in my book, From Barista to Boardroom, which I expect to publish in 2021).

Tom embodies a very unique combination of deep, genuine care for his people and an insatiable drive for results. His steadfast commitment to both taught me that the best way to achieve a goal is through your people. By leveraging their strengths, building a strong team, listening to and empathizing with them along with setting clear expectations for performance, you can achieve just about anything.

It’s an honor to interview Tom for this week’s In My Network article. I’m forever indebted to and grateful for his belief in me that I can do anything I set my mind to. Enjoy!

How and when did we first meet?

In 1994, I was working in the Specialty Sales and Marketing division at Starbucks. We were just starting out and our department was considered an anomaly vs. the core retail business at the time. There was a struggle for trust, attention and resources as all the investment was around the retail stores.

A resource from the training department was offered up and I jumped at the opportunity for help training the sales team. Frankly, my expectations were low as I figured for the training department to offer us a resource, perhaps there must be something wrong with this partner (Starbucks term for “employee”).

But it was you! I was so impressed your delivery of the training, the passion, enthusiasm, the trust and acceptance of our team and the very honest and earnest interest you had in what we did and what we needed. I knew from our first meeting that I was on a mission to recruit you onto our team! And I honestly felt you were the type of person who could do anything you set your mind to and would go very far at Starbucks. And I was right, thank you very much!

Take us back a bit. What do you remember about your first management/team leadership job? What was it and what was an early lesson you learned?

In 1988, I was the Hotel Assistant Manager at the Hyatt Embarcadero in San Francisco. Although this wasn’t my first position leading and managing people, it was a pivotal point in my understanding of servant leadership. I didn’t make the connection that it was about servant leadership until later at Starbucks through Howard Behar.

As a Hotel Assistant Manager (or HAM), one of your responsibilities was to fill in and cover breaks, sick calls and absences for any of the managers whether it be at the front desk, housekeeping, the switchboard, one of the multiple restaurants or bars, security, bell desk, valet, the spa or whatever. I came in like the substitute teacher.

My boss at the time was a man named Paul McNally who was the assistant GM of the entire hotel. Paul was the person who I learned how to successfully lead and partner with people to accomplish great things. I’d watch him interact with every employee at the hotel and, no matter what level or what position they were in, he was the epitome of treating all with respect, dignity, honestly, compassion and inspiration just to name a few adjectives!

He built trusting relationships by putting himself in their shoes, working with them and wanting to learn the finer points of their jobs. Whether it was how to make a bed that you can bounce a coin off, how to flip pancakes or burgers and assure the best shape and flavor when you serve them up, or help direct traffic at the front entrance with the doorman and valets, etc.

Everyone loved, and trusted Paul but also, because he was honest and didn’t hesitate to provide constructive feedback in a manner that made you want more and more.

When do you think your leadership “style” emerged? How would you describe it today?

My leadership style started to emerge after that pivotal point as the HAM at the Hyatt working for Paul. It has taken years to refine and it’s something I’ve had to work at all of my life and career.

My style today hasn’t changed from then, but I do know and recognize there were certain times in my life and career where personal and professional situations challenged my ability to be a good leader or to be consistent with the style that has provided success in my career.

I think we are all challenged to remember that without the people on the front lines and without a team, there is no leader or no need. And it’s the team that produces for success.

What advice do you have for new managers?

Early on, I figured out that it’s a fine line for new managers who want to be friends with everyone but can’t. You need to be able to establish in a respectful way that you have a job to do and goals and objectives to achieve. But the only way you can do that is through your team.

New managers can work on being honest, build trust and show vulnerability. If they recognize and are confident that they don’t know everything but are there to support and lead the team, that’s a great start. This helps them relate to their people.

I’m the type of person that truly thrives on getting to know people on my team, how they tick, what motivates them and where their sensitivities may be.

For as long as I’ve known you, you’ve been a “leader of the people”, always thinking of the team first. Has this ever backfired on you or have you ever gotten pressure to make decisions that aren’t a benefit to the team?

Yes, of course. And it really challenged me. I still dream of those few situations where I had to make hard decisions regarding my team – the 1989 hotel strike in San Francisco, then the 1989 earthquake that followed right after, the 2008 economic downturn and of course today’s pandemic.

I had to make tough calls to lay off people, who to layoff or who to redeploy. However, in most cases, because of the trust, honesty and relationships I had built along with either surrounding myself with good, logical business sense people or having coached individuals enough, ultimately most people on my team understood.

It’s similar to situations where you have to let someone go for performance. If you have set very clear expectations and have had all the right honest conversations in a supportive but direct manner, there should never be any surprises. By the time that hard decision comes around, the person generally has self-actualized, or accepted things aren’t working out.

Regardless, every decision like this is hard and can be emotional and doing your best to do it with support, compassion and respect, is critical.

There were those few cases where I got pressure to make a decision that wasn’t a benefit to the team or was against my style, values or philosophy on how you treat people. In those cases, I did my best to persuade and present logical cases against such decisions or to find alternative solutions and where I wasn’t successful.

I made the personal decision to step away or down from my role as I just couldn’t live with such a decision. Some people can do it or play the politics to keep their jobs and move up at a cost to their team or others, but I’ve just never been able to do that. I’ve always felt that without my team, I’m nothing and, as long as they perform, treat others with respect and dignity and give it their full commitment, then I will stand by them through thick and thin.

Can you think of a time when you had someone on the team who did not adapt to the team culture you created? How did you deal with that?

It generally works its way out, but you can’t wait to let it damage what you and your team have built. When hiring someone onto a high performing and “humming” team, I just feel it is critical that you involve the current team in the interviewing process and hiring decision as much as possible.

Allowing them to be a part of the decision and to help own the onboarding and integration into the culture of the team will also provide a format to address situations where someone ultimately doesn’t fit.

Along with those consistent, honest, and supportive coaching and feedback sessions, again, the few times where I’ve had this happen, the exit of the person was more self-actualizing and less dramatic or emotional.

What is one characteristic that is your leadership hallmark and why?

Vulnerability. When we acknowledge that we are all human and equal, we are so much more accepting and honest. I work on coaching leaders on vulnerability and striking the right balance of not sharing too much or being afraid to be vulnerable. This means being able to express to others and be open to learning and admit you don’t have all the answers.

What is one thing you’ve gotten coached on over and over but don’t ever see changing?

I start out every new business, leadership, personal, whatever relationship with an upfront honest notification that I have been coached over and over that my facial expressions can be somewhat confusing. I struggle with this daily and even with my wife of twelve years so, it’s better to put it out there because I don’t see it changing.

For those that are still developing their leadership style, what advice do you have?

Why would anyone want to lead people? There are those that get great life satisfaction from seeing others succeed, win, contribute and realize their passion. If you are one of those people who push others into the spotlight because they have helped deliver on your goals or the goals of the organization, then you have leadership genes.

And don’t be afraid to recognize and accept that there are times in life where being a leader of others just isn’t right at the time. Be it focusing on self, family, or a need for self-validation – the time for self-validation is not during a leadership position. For those that have years of experience under their belt, how can they keep growing as a leader?

If you can, don’t be afraid to try something completely different or to take a step back to do so. Always, always, take the time to learn new things, big or small, learn about your people, your friends even your family. Wow, what a time to really learn about your friends and family like now. If you think you can’t teach an old dog new tricks that’s BS. It’s so much easier to teach and learn this old dog new tricks because I’m much more patient, confident in myself, self-aware and I’m super inquisitive.

It's rapid fire round time!

  • One activity you are doing more of since COVID-19: Calling my Mom! Running with my daughter. Talking more to my boys in Seattle.

  • Favorite leadership quote or saying: There are two: Neil Young - “Every wave is new until it breaks” and this quote by Winston Churchill is currently posted on my desk - “Never give in, never, never, never, never in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield the force, never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."

  • One of your family traditions: Turkey Tamale Pie on Thanksgiving

  • One thing on your bucket list: Taking my daughter Malika back to Kyrgystan where she was born

  • A perfect day would be spent: A the ballpark, watching the San Francisco Giants, with a hot dog, a cold draft beer, my daughter, my twin boys, my wife, and my grandma and grandpa who taught me everything about baseball, even though they were Dodger fans!

Thank you Tom. I appreciate you!

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