The headlines include “Uber leadership shake-up,” “Uber executive reshuffling,” “Uber Operating, Marketing Chiefs Leaving in Leadership Shake-Up.” While this may be the result of some bad behavior and poor results, may have been Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s plan to survive his own change.
Khosrowshahi stepped into an organization in desperate need of deep-rooted cultural change. He quickly brought in Harvard Business School Professor Frances Frei and her model of clarity – communication – consistency. She worked to get everyone on the same page (clarity,) corral external and internal communication, and drive consistency by rooting out cultural breaks.
Culture change takes time. Tru Value’s Lyle Heidemann’s cultural change took five years. Frei’s consistency has to run from the CEO through front-line employees. So, change agents need consistency over time. This is why it’s important for a CEO like Khosrowshahi to survive the initial changes.
Early in his tenure, Khosrowshahi fired more than 20 employees who had been involved in Uber’s embarrassing public scandals. He brought in Barney Harford as Chief Operating Officer and later Rebecca Messina as Chief Marketing Officer. These two had important roles in getting the company’s operations and marketing ready for an IPO while Khosrowshahi focused more on external stakeholders.
Harford is said to have had a “brusque management style.” While he survived an internal review of what some considered to be “racially insensitive remarks,” he was a “divisive figure.”
Now Khosrowshahi is taking control of the company’s core business and promoting two long-term Uber employees to help him do so.
Surviving your own change
We’re told that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Seth Godin’s cultural short hand is “People like us do things like this.” He notes that people are driven to become members in good standing of the tribe. People that don’t do things the way the tribe does them get rejected by the tribe.
By definition, change agents are going to do things differently than how they are currently done. The tribe is going to reject them. It’s unavoidable.
This leaves change agents with three viable approaches:
Sacrifice yourself. Accept the inevitable. Lead the change. Then get out of Dodge before the natives lynch you.
Fire everyone. If “People like us do things like this,” replace all the people with new people who are like you and will do things your way.
Set someone else up to fail. Let someone else lead the change, knowing that the natives are going to turn on them eventually.
Some people thrive on being change agents. They come in, turn things around and set up their successors for longer-term success. If you’re doing that, think in terms of a short-term assignment. Build the relationships you need, set the imperative, team and operating cadence to implement the changes. Then, as your parting gift to the organization, make sure you prepare someone else to lead the organization going forward.
The obvious question here is how to define “everyone.” This is like cutting out a cancer. You have to get all the bad cells. Sometimes it’s just the leadership team. Sometimes it’s all senior management. Sometimes it’s everyone in the organization. The risk of course is in killing the patient while your killing the cancer.
My partner Rob Gregory who was a farmer used to say two things:
“Never name an animal you’re going to eat.”
“Never fire anyone until you know who’s going to do their job.”
Putting the two together suggests you take the time you need to evaluate your team, making sure not to make any promises you’re not prepared to keep. Then put the new team in place. Then fire everyone.
Set someone else up to fail
This is what Khosrowshahi did. He brought Harford in to lead the change and get them through the IPO before publicly hanging him. The change agent role could be an outside consultant, a VP of change management or the like. Anyone will do – so long as they’re not you.