Leadership

Lessons From the Uber Crisis

By / Mar 13, 2017 Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who recently found himself the subject of controversy. (Fortune Brainstorm Tech/Flickr)

A viral video has put the company’s CEO in hot water, but that’s not Uber’s only concern. Help is on the way, but help for troubled organizations is complicated.

Some are born great leaders. Some achieve greatness. And some have leadership training thrust upon them after video of them berating an employee goes viral.

OK, so we’re actually talking about just one person here: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who in the past two weeks has received a very public lesson in the importance of soft skills when it comes to managing an organization. Late last month Bloomberg released a video of Kalanick arguing with his Uber driver about the company’s fare structure changing to the detriment of drivers. You can watch the video at the link if you haven’t already, but suffice it to say that saying “Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own [expletive]” is a bad look for any executive. And it’s also a candid glimpse of the kind of temperament executives can struggle with when they think they’re not being observed.

Shortly after the video made the rounds across the globe, Kalanick performed the enduring exec-in-trouble ritual of apologies and promises to do better. “I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up,” he wrote in a company-wide email. “This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.”

Last week Kalanick took the first concrete step toward defining what that help might look like, announcing that Uber would be hiring a COO. It’s not a bad initial move—it’s certainly in a long tradition of brash Silicon Valley entrepreneurs hiring a designated grownup to help with day-to-day stuff they’re losing a grip on. But beyond Uber’s own fix, there’s a lesson for leaders of all sorts about the kinds of conversations and changes that a crisis like Kalanick’s should provoke.

I need leadership help and I intend to get it.

Recognize that “bad news” often isn’t an accident. If Kalanick’s verbal tussle with a driver were the sole leadership problem at Uber, it might have died quickly. But the incident comes on the heels of (among other things) sexual-harassment charges, a lawsuit alleging stolen technology, and public accusations of exploiting last month’s short-lived executive order on foreign travel for financial gain. These are all particular problems with their own issues, but they’re also troubles of a type—they suggest that Uber considers itself above the law or above other classes of people. If an organization has a series of problems, look at how they cluster, what their theme is. It’s likely that they’re more than just the hiccups in an innovative business and instead fundamental flaws in a the model of how you’re leading.

Hitch a ride. It may very well be that 99 percent of Kalanick’s Uber rides are genial chats with drivers about what’s working at the company. But if he doesn’t recognize that the rides are opportunities to learn about what can improve workers’ lives at Uber, he does now. He might do what a Fortune reporter recently did, hitching a ride and hearing out some of the commonsense ideas from drivers about what might improve their work lives (lower commissions, opportunities for tipping, a break on tune-ups and car washes). Association CEOs have uniformly told me that one of the best ways they learn to do their job is to spend time with members talking about how they do theirs. You can’t make every member happy, but not every member with a grievance is just looking to pick a fight.

Find the difference between aggressiveness and aggression. The urge to make changes at an organization is strong, and it’s generally welcome. That’s especially true in the association world, which can be slow-moving ships when it comes to going global, taking advantage of innovations in education, or road-testing new membership models. But there’s a line between aggressively pursuing innovation and creating an abusive culture of one-upmanship, and tech companies like Uber often seem to live on the edge of it. And that’s a tone-from-the-top problem. As one Uber investor told Vanity Fair: “If you put somebody, a brash innovator on a pedestal, why are you surprised when that brashness spills over to how he treats employees and, in this case vendors of the company?” Behavior like that has prompted questions over whether Uber’s COO search is nothing more than a cosmetic fix; one Wired writer thinks Kalanick’s best move, if he cares about Uber’s fortunes, is to step down as CEO.

Amazon has, somewhat infamously, struggled to create a culture that empowers individuals without encouraging them to stomp on one another to get ahead. Now Uber is trying to sort out how it can make a new business model thrive without making wide swaths of its community feel like it’s under somebody’s bootheel. Public apologies help; leadership training helps; hiring a second banana with more conventional business smarts and less swagger can potentially help. But the ultimate goal is a leader capable of taking a clear view of what’s not working culturally at an organization and demonstrating the qualities that are required to fix it. It’s a tough gig, and it remains to be seen whether Uber’s up to the challenge.

What do you do at your organization to hear out and address stakeholder concerns, especially in a crisis? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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