Why Kalanick’s departure from Uber is a victory for company culture

In this piece Ab Banjeree, CEO of ViewsHub, shares some practical lessons for small businesses following Travis Kalanick's controversial reign at the helm of Uber.

Uber has lost its founder and CEO. Travis Kalanick has gone. For most companies, to lose a powerful leader and a globally-recognised company face would be a disaster. But at Uber, that might not be the case – in fact, this may very well be a good thing.

We can all learn from Uber and the fall of Kalanick. And we must do it fast. If we don’t learn these lessons right now, I think we might be heading for an uncomfortable and ultimately unprofitable corporate future.

Kalanick bought into the idea of ‘brilliant jerks’

It seems, from the media portrayal at least, that Kalanick was a fan of so-called ‘brilliant jerks’ – brilliant people with an uncompromising vision and the stubbornness to see it through to the end, regardless of who they hurt in the process.

Hiring a brilliant jerk might work in a very young start-up – for a while at least – and there are plenty of founders who would self-describe as such. But once the company starts to grow, if they can’t change their attitudes and behaviours, there’s only one end result: destruction – for them, and often for the business too.

While brilliant jerks are skilled, experienced, and excellent workers – regularly outperforming everyone else – their attitude and approach to teamwork can make everyone else in the office feel utterly miserable. Brilliant jerks alienate and crush their co-workers’ confidence. They often trample on the ideas of others, and they promulgate bad – and increasingly unethical – behaviour. So ultimately, they defeat their very purpose.

And that’s the rub: brilliant jerks may be great individual performers, but they may also – at the same time – reduce the effectiveness of the company’s teams as a whole. In fact, they may be exceptional performers only because they suppress the performance of the rest of the team. A great company does not find and hire effective individuals in isolation. It goes out of its way to create effective teams.

As managers, we all know that a team of A-star employees doesn’t necessarily lead to a A-star result; in fact, they are often outperformed by a team of more average individual performers. That’s because these people work together well. They naturally create an adaptive, reactive, and energetic team where there is mutual support and outstanding ideas are sparked in safety.

At Uber, it seems like they lost touch with that. It seems like they bought hook, line and sinker into the cult of the individual performer. And that meant their overall effectiveness went down – rather than up.

Kalanick lost touch with how people were feeling – or doesn’t appear to have cared

For me, one of the most surprising things about the Uber scandal is just how many employees seem to have felt that the company culture was toxic. It seems there were lots of people who knew something was wrong, and yet, according to reports, nothing appears to have been done to address this growing sense of alarm.

In my view, there can be no real excuse for a company failing to pick up on this kind of distress. As most managers know, the best way to tell how your organisation is performing is to listen to your employees; and similarly, the best way to improve your performance as a company is to create feedback loops to collect and respond to this feedback.

The stories that are coming out of Uber suggest that Kalanick didn’t have effective procedures to collect, process, and analyse feedback – or, even worse, he did listen, but didn’t care.

This is all the more disappointing because technology now makes it incredibly easy to create feedback collection processes – on not only individuals, but teams as well. Today, CEOs just don’t have an excuse for not knowing how their employees feel about their company, their managers and their own performance.

They are hundreds of feedback tools that can help organisations run surveys and collect team feedback at scale across thousands of employees and over lots of geographies. This can now be done in real-time over employees’ mobile phones, in fact. As a tech company, it seems strange that this wasn’t introduced, or wasn’t used effectively.

Competition and conflict trumped working together

Finally, Uber fell into one final age-old trap, one that I have seen time and time again: believing that workplace competition – at the expense of everything else – is the key to profits. At Uber, under Kalanick’s watch, the business became a place where competition ruled supreme. This led to unhealthy levels of aggression, tension and conflict.

Don’t get me wrong, competition is a good thing. It encourages employees to challenge themselves and their colleagues, as well as come up with new solutions to problems. But if competition isn’t carefully contained and monitored, it can also lead to immoral risk-taking of the kind we saw take place in the banking industry during the meltdown.

In the name of winning, people will keep pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable and this eventually leads both to behaviour that comes back to bite the company, and intra-group breakdown, where everything comes grinding to a halt.

Competition is a very powerful force. It can drive individuals and teams. But of all the factors that make up a business culture, it can be the most destructive of all. Uber’s plight is a big wake-up call to the dangers of an over-competitive workplace.

Nearly a month on, the initial lessons from Uber are clear: companies must put the health and effectiveness of teams above the aggression and destruction of the brilliant jerks. If a company wants talented people to stay and help them grow long term, and avoid self-destruction, they should lift their vision, focus their attention on teams and put 360-degree feedback technology in place as soon as possible.

Ab Banjeree is CEO of ViewsHub

Further reading on Uber

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of SmallBusiness.co.uk from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

Related Topics

Company culture

Leave a comment