Commentary

How Uber’s Next CEO Can Clean Up Travis Kalanick’s Mess

Jun 21, 2017

“The fish rots from the head down,” is an adage Uber now knows well.

Here in Silicon Valley, we thrive on achieving big things quickly. Yet many of us are blinded by short-term gains instead of building enduring businesses. Travis Kalanick, the now former CEO of Uber, was a victim of his own design, allowing pursuit of growth to become the core of Uber’s corporate culture, and possibly its demise.

All companies have a culture. A few are thought-out and designed. However, most are accidental byproducts of the CEO’s personal aspirations. Uber makes a near perfect case study for the latter. By setting a goal of growth at all costs, hiring leadership with the same myopic vision, and communicating this relentlessly throughout Uber, all other aspects of the business became secondary.

Organizational sexism, possibly illegal spycraft on competitors, improper access of driver medical records, alleged theft of intellectual property—the seemingly endless list of Uber’s malfeasances is a clear sign of a corrupt corporate culture.

Corporate culture rots from the head down.

It is the responsibility of every CEO to establish and enforce the corporate culture. By all reports, Kalanick did just that. It is the nature of the culture he chose that was the problem. He had options as to what kind of company Uber would be, and he chose a Machiavellian organization that put growth ahead of humanity.

This was a sadly short-term perspective, because all business is about people, and people choose their relationships—employment, purchases, investments—based largely on reputation. Enduring businesses build their corporate culture on humane fundamentals. I based my company’s culture in part on honesty, integrity, and respecting the dignity of everyone. We had the highest employee retention rate in our industry, and we were profitable 36 of our 37 years according to generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). We may have grown more slowly than we might have with an Uber-like culture, but we earned a reputation that created a respected, enduring business.

Uber has earned a reputation that now points in the opposite direction.

In March, Uber board member Arianna Huffington said that Kalanick needed to evolve his style from "scrappy entrepreneur" to "leader of a major global company." This is not the problem or the solution. It isn’t a matter of style but one of principle. A corporate culture based on principle— in the mode of the HP Way, Google’s Ten Things, or Micrel’s honesty/integrity/dignity mix—prevents exactly the kinds of problems plaguing Uber today.

The new CEO may bring a new “style,” but they had better also bring a briefcase filled with respect for humans, and a plan for making everyone in Uber believe that people are more important than blind ambition.

Ray Zinn is founder and former CEO of Micrel and author of Tough Things First.

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