Uber Was Right to Hustle, but Here’s Where its Leadership Blew It
These are confusing times for corporate culture custodians, be they heads of HR, hiring managers, or leaders who simply want to create an environment in which teams can do their best.
For the past several years, the tech-driven San Francisco Bay Area model of culture, pioneered so successfully by startups of every size, from the largest cloud companies to the smallest app developers, has held considerable appeal. Move first and move fast. Encourage internal competition. Test and learn. Always push relentlessly forward. Learn from your mistakes. Above all else, hustle.
Uber pushed these ideas as far as they would go, but now it’s paying a heavy price. A torrent of negative press coverage appeared to reveal the unintended consequences of this do-or-die approach to business. A macho male ethos turned the clock back on years of slow, hard-won progress in the fight for workplace equality. New reports of gender and racial discrimination continue to surface. Ex-employees report infighting among senior managers, and the undermining of peers and supervisors in an unchecked race to the top. Senior leaders are falling like dominos, its president of ride-sharing the most recent example, reportedly saying the prevailing culture was at odds with his personal values.
Now we hear that disgruntled employees are considering scrubbing Uber off their resumes while they seek employment elsewhere. Hiring managers in the Bay Area are evaluating once highly sought-after applicants from the ride-share giant with a new degree of skepticism. Today, the widely admired “hustle-oriented culture” is becoming something to be afraid of.
Whether this exodus of talent spreads to the broader employee population or impacts Uber’s recruiting efforts remains to be seen. There are signs that the Bay Area tech sector is starting to stabilize after years of hyper-growth, with venture capital today concentrated into fewer, bigger funding rounds. This could mitigate some of the human capital impact of the company’s recent scandals as the talent market becomes marginally less competitive and prospective employees have fewer options.
But there are no easy fixes for a company so rocked by scandal. In today’s transparent, social world, token gestures carry little weight. The only option is to make a public, well-funded commitment to transforming the company’s culture. This effort has to start at the very top, with an affirmation that the company stands for something more than making money, and clear accountability at every level for consistently living up to core ideals. Leadership then needs to consistently reinforce desired behavior through communications, training, and performance management.
This reshaping of attitudinal and behavioral norms will likely take a year or more, but candidates will be willing to put aside their reservations if they see an authentic recognition of past mistakes, a clear vision for what the company strives to be, and a tangible roadmap for change.
It doesn’t seem so far-fetched to imagine a world in which Uber’s values really do define its working environment—and aren’t just ill-defined and fast-forgotten bromides—like compassion and integrity—that adorn key badges and lobby walls.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with hustle. Internal competition can lead to faster discoveries and rapid execution. The idea of rolling out partial solutions, and incrementally making them better based on customers’ suggestions, can generate better products, faster. Unless you make potentially life-and-death products like jet engines or drugs, waiting for something to be as close to perfect as possible before you release it to the general public pretty much guarantees that you’ll be a market laggard.
Companies need leaders and employees who are okay with taking risks, speaking up, and challenging orthodox thinking with experimentation and imperfection. This is how you create new value in a world of customer co-creation and extreme market fluidity.
The key to success is to create cultures that promote ambition and freedom guided by a more human, constructive mindset. We need leaders who strive to create, not win at all costs. It’s the creation of new value that’s key to commercial success and enduring impact. In fact, that’s how you win.
Leaders should demonstrate and recognize curiosity in order to develop the sensing abilities they need to gather data and insights from new sources, and freely explore “what if” scenarios. They should possess intense positivity, a conviction that the future is theirs, and a star-bright vision that inspires and guides. The have to show empathy, which fosters respect, creative collaboration, and the ability to anticipate the unmet needs of customers and employees. And they need the courage to try new things, to take risks, to screw up, and to be able to learn from it.
All of these are vital contemporary characteristics of great leadership. They do nothing to blunt the edge of a corporate blade. They sharpen it. The best companies—the fastest-moving and most innovative—will take important lessons from Uber’s Shakespearean humbling. They will see that true meritocracy requires true diversity, that integrity is the most important company attribute in a world of total transparency, and that machine learning will never be a substitute for human decency.
Jeremy Morgan is a partner in Lippincott’s organizational engagement practice.