Lessons learned from the Uber CEO crisis

Here, Jennifer Janson is author of The Reputation Playbook and chairman of Six Degrees, tells us what lessons can be learned from the Uber CEO crisis.

In this SmallBusiness monthly series of ‘Lessons Learned’, Jennifer Janson, author of The Reputation Playbook and chairman of Six Degrees, will assess how a company recently in the news has handled a crisis, and provide top tips for small businesses to handle a crisis in the best way possible:

Mid-June saw Trevor Kalanick, founder and CEO of Uber, telling employees he was going to take a leave of absence from work. According to his internal memo, the move was triggered by the death of his mother. He was very candid about the fact that he also needed to take time for reflection and learning when it comes to his leadership style.

Earlier this year, Kalanick and his board hired former US Attorney General Eric Holder to look into the culture of the company amid numerous allegations of sexual harassment, inappropriate behaviour by drivers and an overall toxic environment.

The report (released last week) includes 47 recommendations that the board has agreed to adopt. One of these recommendations is that Kalanick takes less of a front-line leadership role. In further developments, Kalanick subsequently resigned from hist post as CEO, at the request of board members.

Although not on this scale, this type of crisis is not unique to Uber. In fact, as many businesses scale, there inevitably comes a time when the founder is no longer the right person to be the CEO. Perhaps your situation is much less high-profile, but the lessons around culture should be heeded by anyone running a business. Your company’s reputation starts with your culture. And the culture is created by the person at the top.

What can we learn about culture from this story?

Do as I do

No matter what you say your culture is, what it really boiled down to is ‘the way things are done around here’. And if that amounts to dismissing sexual harassment allegations because the person being accused is a ‘top performer’, then that speaks volumes about your values (or lack thereof). If you, as CEO of the business, regularly get drunk at company gatherings with your staff, that sends the clear signal that certain things are okay to do in the workplace.

Rest assured, even though you may not realise it, your employees will naturally look to you and your behaviour as the benchmark for their own. Be aware of what you say and do when you’re engaging with your employees – set an example for how you’d like people to behave in their professional environment.

Values matter

A lot of companies (no matter how small) have subscribed to the belief that core values are important for their business. And that’s great. Having strong core values is one thing, but living by them is another. You and your employees must be willing to work in line with your values, even when it might mean making difficult decisions.

Do a little test: If you have core values as a company, see how many of your employees can write them down without you prompting them! One way of ingraining your core values into your business is adding them into regular moments of your business’ life such as in the company newsletter. We use something in our office which works well. Each week at our all-company meeting we have a segment on our agenda called ‘core values stories’.

Each team member nominates other team members for specific action they have taken in line with our company values, which adds recognition for work well done in front of the team, positively encouraging others to seek the same. By awarding those who embody the company’s core values, we create an aligned company culture.

Be prepared to listen and to change

Trevor Kalanick is not known for his humility. But I think we need to give credit where credit is due. The fact that he is stepping away from the front-line role, is a step in the right direction for Uber. If you know that something is not working in your company, for whatever reason, it is better to face it than let it fester.

Sometimes that will mean asking someone from the outside to interview employees in order to get candid feedback. And once you’ve had that feedback, the best leaders will be open to doing all that they can to protect their company, even if that means that you must step down in order to reduce the negative impact for your company of further conflict.

A company’s culture is a fragile thing. Whether it is negative or positive, sentiment around it is bound to leak into the outside world. Although Trevor Kalanick has resigned, the negative perceptions around Uber persist. Arguably only time will tell if Uber can recover its reputation. It’s best to pay attention to it before it becomes a reputation-damaging issue and strategically shape it for beneficial results.

Jennifer Janson is author of The Reputation Playbook and chairman of Six Degrees

Further reading on lessons learned

Owen Gough, SmallBusiness UK

Owen Gough

Owen was a reporter for Bonhill Group plc writing across the Smallbusiness.co.uk and Growthbusiness.co.uk titles before moving on to be a Digital Technology reporter for the Express.co.uk.

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