When a leader shows humility, takes responsibility, and is willing to change, people rally behind that leader. Running a business is always hard. Running a startup that’s in a competitive race is even harder. But people love a redemption story, and most would probably love to see Uber turn around.But by cancelling his appearance at Code, Kalanick missed the opportunity to take the time to answer people’s questions and to reveal his plan for changing himself and Uber’s culture. People would have listened. Culture could have change. But staying silent, avoiding the spotlight, and saying nothing? When it comes to staff culture, I’ve never seen that improve anything. For a leader to stay silent at such a crucial moment makes fans scratch their heads and fuels the fires for the critics. And it’s why I’m taking Lyft to dinner tonight.
I’ve been a big fan and user of Uber since they arrived in my city years ago. But the news surrounding them in the last six months has me withdrawing my “raving fan” status. While Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has successfully revolutionized an industry, the buzz surrounding Uber of late is, to put it mildly, not good, and it all has one common denominator: bad company culture. Whether it’s a history of mistreating women, Kalanick being caught on film shouting at a driver, or, more tragically, Uber cited as a reason that an engineer committed suicide, the wash of bad publicity is leaving behind a stain that may outlast the revolution that Kalanick began. As I consult with organizations on their staffing, vision, and culture, I’ve been watching the Uber situation unfold and asking myself what I can learn from it as a business leader and consultant. I haven’t been inside Uber’s offices, and I know that there’s always more to any story than what’s in the press, but I think there are a few lessons all entrepreneurs can learn from Uber’s recent infamy. 1. Developing culture demands time you don’t have. Every day, when my assistant leaves the office, she’s kind enough to ask, “Is there anything else I can get you?” And I always reply (now a routine joke), “Yes; I need two more hours in every day and an extra day in each week.” Throughout my company’s seven years, we have been in high growth mode, and the number one enemy I’ve faced has been scarcity of time. Most entrepreneurs probably feel this way, and I’m sure it was no different at Uber. Kalanick latched onto a novel idea and had to act quickly to expand it before someone else did. Creating strong company culture most likely didn’t take much of a priority. I made that same mistake at my previous job. It didn’t end well. Fortunately, as I started to build out Vanderbloemen, some wise people convinced me to pour a large amount time and resources into creating and emphasizing the nine core values that shape our company culture. I remember wishing the process was quicker. Fast forward seven years, and we’re honored to have been named in Entrepreneur’s Top 5 Company Cultures in the nation for the last two years in a row and have maintained our strong, contagious culture despite fast growth. I now believe that if every entrepreneur doubles the amount of time and focus they spend on their company’s culture, they would see long-term ROI on that time. 2. Meaningless, vague values make for meaningless, vague culture. I’ve seen a lot of company’s core values in my work, and I’ve realized that very few companies truly know what their culture is. A look at Uber’s values shows a string of vague words like “execution.” On the flipside, when I see a company with amazing culture, it is almost always tied to dynamic, unique, and clear articulation of values. One example of this is Ramsey Solutions, Dave Ramsey’s company, with core values like “Crusade: We are crusaders doing work that matters.” Entrepreneurs, are your company’s values stated clearly? Do they carry real meaning? 3. No matter your written values, culture always reflects the person at the top. Uber has written core values. But clearly, what’s written on paper doesn’t match what we’ve seen in the news. This isn’t a new phenomenon. My town birthed Enron. Their leading cultural value? “Integrity.” Culture begins and ends with the head of the org chart, no matter what is established on paper. If the habits and leadership of the company’s execs are different than the values, those values are meaningless. And the culture problems at Uber reflect that. Their current troubles are fruits of seeds that Travis Kalanick has been the planting for years. His “winner take all” attitude spills down the org chart as does his brash clashes with city governments. In a 2014 GQ article, he referred to Uber as “Boob-er,” as his success had helped him in wooing the opposite sex. 4. Avoiding talking about culture won’t solve the problems. In my shift away from Uber fan, yesterday may have been the final tipping point for me. Yesterday, at the famous Code Conference, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick became the first speaker to cancel his appearance because of the embarrassing news surrounding his company. While I don’t know exactly why he cancelled, on the Recode blog, it was noted that both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs kept their spots at the conference when they faced public embarrassments. This leads me to the most powerful lesson that entrepreneurs can learn from Kalanick.