Uber: the lucky one?

Curium | 26 Jun 2017 | News | General News

Founding director and Customer Solutions Director James Farrow looks at Uber and how being forced to address its culture could be the key to future success.

Uber has announced the removal of founder Travis Kalanick as CEO following sustained poor publicity relating to an alleged culture of bullying, sexism and general mismanagement.

Not all companies are as fortunate as Uber. Most companies are not in the public eye enough to be forced to change when the culture is eating the company from the inside. Uber could consider itself lucky to have pressure to change before it’s too late.

But do we, on the outside, care what it is like on the inside of Uber? Are low fares more important than the fact that people are mismanaged, suffering gender bias and all that goes with it?

After all, we knew for years about the sweatshops making trainers and t-shirts, but still many bought them. Do we really make purchasing decisions based on these matters?

It is more a human trait to prioritise pleasure and pain in the moment; in the here and now. So, if it’s cheap and convenient, I’ll buy it.

We are not naturally wired to make decisions that impact the future, something that ‘might’ happen. (I’ll blog more about the psychology of this, as I spend a lot of time helping people with goal setting and goal achievement to overcome these exact challenges.)

Gradually, the answer will be that we do care; that sustainable businesses are those who can survive when the competition starts to increase, those who can keep their talent.

If culture is important enough to oust the CEO of the most heavily funded start-up in history, the question becomes: is it reversible? Is publicly removing the CEO from his position going to change a culture that by now is ‘how things are done around here’. The CEO / founder still sits on the Board, so how much will really change?

The money-men who called for the change are protecting their investment and trying to fend off the kind of attention that social media can mobilise – the honest voice of people inside the company.

The question is, does Uber really have what it takes to change the culture? Here is a quick checklist:

  1. A compelling reason to change: thanks to social media, Uber is one step on the journey
  2. Vision: a clearly defined alternative. It seems as though Uber knows what it does not want, but not what it does want. If you do not know where you are supposed to go, the temptation to stay where you are is overwhelming. There is more certainty in what we know, even if we don’t like it.
  3. Leadership clarity: what does it mean to be a leader in Uber? How clear is the overriding purpose? What does an Uber Leader look like to an employee? What are the expectations of behaviour? If the leader doesn’t know, then, quite frankly, any behaviour can be justified.
  4. Leadership capability: different to clarity. Clarity is about knowing what to do. Capability is about having the mind-set and skills to do it.
  5. People processes: how do the mechanisms support and reinforce the current culture? Look in depth at the core people processes including recruitment, development, progression, succession, performance and even how you exit people from the company.

There is no silver bullet, but combining a change to people processes (mechanisms) with a shift in mind-set, knowledge and skills, will accelerate the change.

As for the rest of us, pretend you are an external journalist digging for dirt inside your own company, what would the critics say about your culture? After all, prevention is so much easier and less messy than the cure.

As the original guru, Peter Drucker, says: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Just in case you needed a final nudge…

James is founding director and Customer Solutions Director for Curium Solutions, Professional Services Business Master 2017 (The Business Desk). Get in touch on LinkedIn and Twitter (@CuriumSolutions).

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