Accountable Leadership: Learning from Uber’s C-Suite Crisis

uber leadership

It’s the leadership shakedown that has Silicon Valley doing some serious soul searching and now has the entire country talking.

Uber, the leader in bringing ride sharing to the masses, will now see its rebel CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick take a leave of absence after a string of scandals. It’s not yet been announced exactly how long Kalanick will be gone from the helm of the company. This comes as former Attorney General Eric Holder’s recommendations for how to overhaul the company were released Tuesday. Uber’s board has already said that it will adopt all of the recommendations the report contains. Among those recommendations: a complete revamp of the company’s leadership and the appointment of an independent chairman to provide oversight on management.

Uber has been struggling to bring its corporate culture into check for years even as it has clawed its way to becoming a $70 billion behemoth. Since its founding in 2009, the company has faced internal strife as well as customer-led allegations of misconduct. Then, in February, Susan Fowler, a female engineer posted a scathing account of her time at Uber on her blog. She recalled instances of sexual harassment at the company and detailed the lack of assistance from the company’s human resources department. Her claims opened the floodgates and several other similar accounts from other women at the company soon emerged as well, spurring the investigation led by Holder and his law firm.

So how did Uber get here and could this mess have been prevented?

Since Uber burst onto the scene, the company has been relentless and aggressive in its approach to getting Americans to do something once thought impossible: give up their reliance on personally-owned vehicles in favor of hitching rides with strangers on demand. Today, thanks to Uber, ride-sharing has gone mainstream, bringing affordable mobility to people across the globe.

But the very traits that made Uber capable of world domination in its space are the ones that may now be the undoing of its corporate leadership. Relentlessness and aggressiveness may move mountains and get a startup off the ground. But in the long term, these traits have been the downfall of many Silicon Valley darlings who attempt to attain blue chip longevity. How, then, can a startup reconcile its early characteristics with the culture it needs to stay afloat in the long run? The answer begins and ends with accountable leadership.

Also read: Blinded by Success: Why Great Companies Stumble 

It starts at the top

Particularly in a young company like Uber, the personalities of the corporation’s founders are going to loom large in the minds of the rank and file employees. If the C-Suite is throwing parties that call to mind the movie Animal House, employees are going to feel that they can act in a dangerously sophomoric and irresponsible manner around the workplace. It’s not to say that every social interaction at a company has to be drained of any humor or levity. However, when frat culture takes the place of an inclusive corporate culture, respectful workplace behavior will be the first thing to go out the window. Furthermore, when employees see corporate executives leading the charge in a wild party culture, it can be difficult to know where to draw the line for appropriate and inappropriate behavior—and when it’s safe to raise a concern and when the leadership will simply laugh things off.

Rather than seeing the top brass as modeling the way to party, better that employees should see the executive team as being accountable leaders. Instead of casting blame down the corporate hierarchy, accountable leaders must know that the buck stops with them—both when there is cause to celebrate and cause for concern. When employees see their bosses (or boss’ bosses) taking responsibility even when the chips are down, they will feel more compelled to take ownership for their own work and performance.

In what will hopefully be the first step of many in the right direction, Kalanick held himself accountable for Uber’s culture woes in his email to staffers announcing his leave of absence.

“The ultimate responsibility, for where we’ve gotten and how we’ve gotten here rests on my shoulders,” Kalanick wrote. “There is of course much to be proud of but there is much to improve.”

Also read: Fearless Leadership: Don’t Be Afraid of the “No”

With great growth comes great responsibility

Startups, by nature, begin small and scrappy with just a handful of believers driven by ramen noodles, coffee and their hope in a big idea. But, best case scenario, the startup blossoms into something much bigger and better, growing to be a real company with dozens—or even hundreds and thousands—of employees. At that point, company culture has to be a much bigger tent than whatever kept the original founders together. Now, the employee roster will (hopefully) include people from all backgrounds and walks of life. These people will need to be accepted, embraced and accommodated to keep the company humming. If, for example, a company does not offer any kind of maternity or paternity leave policy, working parents may choose to resign or never apply in the first place. That means that the company has excluded a large portion of the workforce from bringing its perspective to bear. When a startup is first trying to get off the ground, these types of inclusive policies are rarely a priority. However, with growth comes the need to include employees of all stripes.

While there will be growing pains with any startup like Uber, a company needs to mature appropriately as it expands. That doesn’t mean that the typical, fun trappings of startup culture need to be tossed—the break room pool table and Friday happy hours can stay. However, corporate culture needs to be cultivated and thoughtfully established to make a comfortable, happy and productive work environment for all—not just for a few at the top.

Ultimately, Uber has a long way to go to repair its toxic work environment. Only then will it become clear whether or not Kalanick has a long-term leadership role on the team he helped build from the ground up.

About the Author

R. Kress is an Emmy Award winning journalist whose reporting and writing has appeared in national media from NBC News to the International Herald Tribune. She has covered news from cities around the world including Jerusalem, Krakow, Amman and Mumbai.