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Uber will succeed by sharing the ride with its employees and community.

culture fails Jul 29, 2020

The global transportation company Uber has become known for many innovations. Beyond ride-sharing and self-driving cars, Uber has introduced great people-power initiatives, like Uber Health, a plan that provides transportation options to seniors, and Uber Drives the Vote, which works to boost voter registration and offers free rides to polling places. Unfortunately, the company's attempts to innovate with distinct cultural values crashed and burned, forcing its disgraced former CEO, Travis Kalanick, to resign in the summer of 2017.

Uber's issues spilled out in February 2017 when a former software engineer detailed the discrimination and sexual harassment she faced while at the company, sparking a major public outrage. The New York Times followed up with embarrassing article about Uber's failed culture, citing multiple events of harassment and describing Uber's workplace as one in which, "workers are sometimes pitted against one another and where a blind eye is turned to infractions from top performers.” A few months later shareholders delivered a letter to Kalanick requesting he step down because "the cultural values of Uber need to be transformed to embrace transparency, diversity and social responsibility alongside growth and the bottom line." Kalanick resigned the next day.

Uber installed new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi in September 2017. In a post on Linkedin, shared a few months after his hiring, Khosrowshahi wrote, "As we move from an era of growth at all costs to one of responsible growth, our culture needs to evolve." Instead of reinventing the culture at Uber, he stated, "I’m focused on preserving what works while quickly changing what doesn’t." Khosrowshahi used the post to introduce Uber's new "Cultural Norms," noting that they were not established values because he expected them to evolve with the company over time.

In all honesty, I don't dislike the values Uber operated under during Kalanick's time as CEO. Reading through their CoreVals (as listed in this Quartz article), some values like "Make magic," and "Superpumped" display a ton of personality, and overall they reflect a place with a lot of energy. They’re certainly not the bland phrases you see repeated at a lot of companies. But individual personality doesn't create a unified culture. When values don't have any substance to inform them, statements like "Always be hustlin,'" and even "Be yourself," can lead a company into a dead end.

One of these values in particular, "Meritocracy and toe-stepping," has always stuck with me because on the surface it's great. It's meant to be an equalizing value, one that levels the playing field for all employees and applies value to their contributions. But when a CoreVal is too vague and lacks the descriptive behaviors that define the value, it's left open to abuse. As Khosrowshahi wrote in his post, "'toe-stepping' was meant to encourage employees to share their ideas regardless of their seniority or position in the company, but too often it was used as an excuse for being an asshole." I should also note that having bad descriptive behaviors can often be as bad as having none. The Quartz article does include some notes about the meaning behind each of Kalanick's Uber values, with the description for "toe-stepping" literally dismissing the value of culture. It states, "Don’t sacrifice truth for social cohesion." The result for Uber was a destructive culture and a massive loss of public trust.

With their new CEO and new "norms," have things changed at Uber? Two weeks after announcing the new efforts to improve culture at Uber, Khosrowshahi wrote on Uber's blog about a "data security incident" that had occurred a year earlier, in October of 2016. Uber officials at the time responded to the incident by paying off the hackers to dissuade them from releasing or selling the information. Following Khosrowshahi's admission, news reports indicated that during Kalanick's tenure the former CEO covered up at least one additional data breach that left customer data potentially compromised. I see no indication that Khosrowshahi has been anything but transparent since taking them helm at Uber, and he certainly appears to be much more serious about being "customer obsessed" than any official at Uber from the previous administration. That said, I think more can be done.

One of the norms listed in Khosrowshahi's initial post is, "We do the right thing. Period." I'd like to think that we all can agree on the differences between right and wrong, but it's simply not a good idea to have such a vague statement listed as one of your core values. As Uber works to firm up their "norms" into genuine values that help their employees thrive, the descriptive behaviors they use to define their CoreVals can incorporate what "the right thing" is for Uber's leadership, employees, partners, and clients. Of course, having the right CoreVals and knowing what types of actions bring those values alive still isn't enough. I believe business leaders can take concrete actions to build a valued culture that helps their employees love where they work, and love why they work. When that happens, business will boom; when I was CEO at Lextech, I took specific steps to build a valued culture that led to 650% growth in just 6 years.

As the leader of a company like Uber, with both corporate employees and those that interact directly with communities across the world, Khosrowshahi has an incredible opportunity to lead a culture that can improve the lives of millions of people on a daily basis. With a potential IPO on the horizon, it remains to be seen whether the new leadership's vision of "integrity at the core of all our decisions," has unseated the company's growth-at-all-costs mindset. However, I must say that I like what I'm seeing from the new leadership so far. Last August Khosrowshahi told CNN that he would like "to execute more fully on our cultural transformation." Having taken steps to promote diversity in the company, and understanding that their "cultural norms" must respond to change going forward, signs indicate that Uber will reach its intended destination.


Will Scott is passionate about creating environments where people thrive to become the best they can be. Great corporate culture drives great performance and investing in culture yields the highest returns in terms of revenue growth and employee retention. Author of the forthcoming book, The Culture Fix: Solve C-Suite Problems at Ground Level with 9 Deeds in 90 Days, Will regularly holds workshops and speaking events on corporate culture and can help you transform yours in just three months. His two key workshops, Discerning Your Core Values and From Core Values to Valued Culture, are now accepting registration for attendees. Click here for more information.


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