Philip Ellis
News & Views
Can Uber turn its current crisis into an opportunity?

After a string of high profile incidents relating to company culture, specifically instances of institutional sexism and a widespread lack of diversity, Travis Kalanick stepped down as CEO of Uber last month. This decision, prompted by personal circumstances and a desire to “build Travis 2.0,” has created a leadership vacuum and prompted commentators to ask; where next for the once-unstoppable company?

Kalanick’s departure was swiftly followed by Bill Gurley’s relinquishing of his seat on the board. Board member David Trujillo also left, after reportedly making a sexist remark at a board meeting about the company’s problem with sexism.

Uber’s culture issues became public in February, when former employee Susan Fowler published a blog post illuminating the harassment she had experienced during her year working for the company. Uber has been putting out fires ever since, tackling investigations into sexual harassment and accusations that the company promotes ruthlessness — to the extent that the company has become perceived as something of a cautionary tale, a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with the tech industry.

“There’s this belief in Silicon Valley that if you want to be disruptive, you want to be a CEO who drives major innovation and change, then you have to be a Taker,” says Wharton psychologist and author Adam Grant. “And you look at Uber and you think well, they had to break all these rules, they had to fight with taxi companies, they had to sidestep laws of different states and countries — you need a bunch of takers who are just willing to go in and take what they feel they deserve and what is ultimately right for their business. And the data don’t support that theory at all. It’s this giant myth. So what you really want if you want to drive disruption is you want disagreeable Givers. The people who enjoy conflict, who like to challenge the status quo and rock the boat, but are motivated to do that in service of helping other people be successful or achieving a meaningful organizational goal.”

And now, a group of African-American lawmakers are applying pressure on the company to make diversity a priority.  The Congressional Black Caucus in the United States has requested that Uber co-founder and chairman Garrett Camp outline the specific steps that he will take to ensure that the company has diverse hiring processes moving forward.

According to Rep. Barbara Lee, “Uber has a unique opportunity to elevate their stated commitment to diversity by hiring a person of colour for a C-suite level position, and appointing a board member of colour.” Rep. G. K. Butterfield adds that tech companies which do not prioritise diversity and inclusion will face “diminished competitiveness, employee lawsuits and increased scrutiny from the government” as a result.

Uber is currently operating without a CFO, CMO or COO. If the company really wants to fix its culture problems, it might want to start thinking seriously about filling those positions with talented candidates who differ from the usual white, male mould. Recent new hires include Bozoma Saint John as Chief Brand Officer and Francis Frei as SVP of Leadership & Culture — both important steps in the right direction. But the embattled company still has a long road ahead.

“It’s never too early to think about the culture that you’re shaping,” says Grand. “And it’s a lot easier to shape culture through who you let in the door than trying to radically change people’s behaviours.”

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